It was supposed to be a fun weekend at the beach for Kristi Williams and her four boys — but for 24-year-old Sy’Dontay Williams, Saturday, Aug. 14, was a life-altering day that has put the family in further financial straits and rendered the oldest son a quadriplegic.
The family has been trying to stay current on rent, household costs and car payments, and now, the single mother faces huge medical bills.
Sy’Dontay was wading in the ocean when a wave hit his knee, causing it to dislocate.
“My left knee popped out, and I dropped down to my knees,” he said. “My hands were underwater. Another wave hit, and I crashed to the ground. I called out; no one was there. I crawled to the sand. A lady came up to me.”
His youngest brother, Ariel, ran to get their mother.
“The next thing I remember (is) being put in the ambulance and after that — blank, nothing else,” he said. “I woke up in the hospital like a week later.”
Sy’Dontay, a 2015 graduate of Olympia High School who was skilled at playing cello and piano, had broken his neck in two places and was lying paralyzed in a bed at UF Health Shands Hospital. He has Loeys-Dietz Syndrome, a genetic condition of connective tissue that causes changes in the heart, blood vessels, bones, joints, skin and internal organs.
This is why his knees frequently popped.
It’s also why surgeons had trouble repairing his neck.
“I had two surgeries — the first one was repairing the neck, putting it back together, and they had my head in a halo,” he said. “They did what’s called a half fusion; they fused half the neck.”
Doctors wanted to avoid a whole fusion because it would immobilize his head and neck, but his LDS caused the halo to slip.
“My head was still slipping off my neck,” he said. “Imagine your head falling off your neck. That’s what was happening to me.”
So, a second surgery, the whole fusion, was deemed necessary. Sy’Dontay has four bars and eight screws at the top of his neck, and he is paralyzed from the chest down. He can move his arms but not his hands.
The family received some good news in October when the hospital notified them that Sy’Dontay had been approved for financial assistance through the University of Florida and could start rehabilitation.
Sy’Dontay was in the hospital until October and then entered a rehabilitation program; he was home just before Thanksgiving.
‘WE ARE HIS HANDS’
He has had to rely on his mother and brothers for everything since August.
“We are his hands right now for everything,” Kristi Williams wrote on their GoFundMe fundraising page. “Nurses do not stand by to suction his mouth, to brush his teeth, Visine his eyes, give him ChapStick for his lips, feed him, give him a drink/ice, help him cough or massage his shoulders, arms and hands.”
“Honestly, without them I would probably be dead right now,” Sy’Dontay said. “I don’t want to be alive, but they’re the only reason I’m here. … My mom, she does all the right things like moms do. She knows how to pull me out of my spirals; sometimes she lets me spiral because I need to. She’s there for whatever I need. It’s very demanding, but she doesn’t let it show. Obviously, I know I am a burden. They don’t see it, but I know that, nonetheless.”
Besides his mom, Sy’Dontay said, his brother, 19-year-old Alijah, has been the biggest help.
Kristi Williams and her two oldest sons had jobs that kept the household bills paid. The two youngest, Gabriel and Ariel, are still in school.
After the accident, however, Sy’Dontay was unable to work and his mother and brother quit their jobs to give him round-the-clock care, even in the hospital.
“Losing his income has been a hard piece of this road we're walking,” Kristi Williams said in a GoFundMe post.
She was able to keep her second job, at Acer Legal Resources, and now she and Alijah take turns staying with Sy’Dontay. Alijah has decided he wants to pursue a career in the nursing field.
But for now, two months without an income has taken its toll on the family. Kristi Williams has been a single mother since her husband, Charlie Williams, died in 2008 from complications from Marfan’s Syndrome, which is similar to LDS.
Her car broke down from the frequent trips to and from Gainesville, and then Sy’Dontay’s car was repossessed because they were behind on payments.
“It’s tight, but we’re managing,” Kristi Williams said. “I just found out I had a food stamp from COVID, so we got food. My rent is always on time. We get Social Security from his dad from when he died.”
Most of the fundraising donations so far have gone toward hotel stays while they are in Gainesville.
They still are waiting for Sy’Dontay’s disability claim to be approved.
‘MIRACLES HAPPEN EVERY DAY’
“I don’t have much time to think about it,” she said. “God has us, and it’s going to be OK. It’s just another hurdle, another loop. It’s my life.”
Sy’Dontay Williams returned to Gainesville last week for another stint in a rehabilitation facility. For two weeks, he will have occupational therapy to learn daily-living skills and physical therapy to work on his strength. His brother and mother share their time there.
When he returns home, he expects to continue outpatient therapy — but the frequency will depend on the insurance.
Medical insurance has been an issue because Sy’Dontay Williams was between jobs. He was to start bartending after the family vacation.
“It was supposed to be my reset, no worries, going on vacation before a new chapter starts,” he said. “Instead, my new chapter is my neck breaking.”
Kristi Williams is trying to look for the positives each day, and she is witnessing compassion and support from family and friends.
“Miracles happen every day — big and small,” she wrote on the GoFundMe page. “They do happen. We are all living proof of that.
“Each day we get up, grateful that (Sy’Dontay) is still here with us and still fighting,” she wrote. “We know it could have gone so much worse. There's no reason, besides God, that he should have survived this kind of accident. He is here, though, and he's still fighting. So, we're going to keep fighting with him. We're thankful for each person willing to walk through this fight with us.”
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.