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WINNING THE FIGHT OF THEIR LIVES
It was a video of his mother, Hazel Scotland- Williamson, 60, in a hospital waiting room, struggling to breathe.
She had been waiting in the Northeast London hospital for six hours to have a chest X-ray to see if her symptoms were the beginning of COVID-19. But despite her obvious distress, after the X-ray she was simply sent home.
At the same time his father, Guy Williamson, 63, was also waiting to see a doctor for what he thought was it was just a stomach issue. So when the doctor offered him nausea medicine and sent him home, he thought nothing of it.
“For four days my mom was saying she felt like she had the flu,” said Scotland-Williamson. “I had talked to her on the phone, and I didn’t want to bring it up and say anything about COVID. On the fourth day she said she was feeling a little bit better. But that is just mom trying to put on a brave face.
“Fortunately, my brother was home and toward the end of that week my dad was feeling ill with gastro problems. He was sick and throwing up. Then one day my mom couldn’t breathe. My brother took both of them to the hospital at 1 a.m. My mom got chest X-rays and was put on a little bit of oxygen. My dad, being the classic male, said he just had an upset stomach. He was given some medicine to help with nausea and gastro problems which was completely unnecessary because that is a symptom of how his COVID was manifesting. He was vomiting, so they didn’t give him a chest X-ray. They sent him home about midday.
“They said they didn’t want to keep people in the hospital unless they were critical because there was so much COVID in the hospital. If you didn’t have the worst case, you could end up getting something worse than you came in with. So, they went home.”
But the video was burned into Scotland- Williamson’s mind. As he sat helpless an ocean away in Pittsburgh and grounded by travel restrictions, seeing his mom like that and knowing his dad was having issues as well kept him awake at night and dominated his thoughts because he knew something was really wrong.
He was right. A few days later, his mom was still bedridden and his dad was getting progressively worse. And then he got a phone call from his older brother, Alexander, letting him know things weren’t good.
“He said he was going to take them back to the hospital because my dad was getting worse,” said Scotland-Williamson. “He couldn’t breathe. My mom had a bad cough and was struggling to breathe when sleeping but was feeling somewhat better, so they didn’t let her go. My dad said he didn’t need to go. But it was bad.
“My brother called an ambulance and they had to carry my dad down the stairs. He couldn’t breathe. He had lost about 30 pounds from the nausea. My brother wanted to go with my dad in the ambulance, but because of how contagious COVID is, and not knowing for sure yet if they had it, you couldn’t have anyone go and have visitors. I got a call at two in the morning after my brother followed the ambulance to the hospital. My mom called and told me they had taken him in. That he was in the best place possible. They placed him on oxygen. He was still throwing up a lot. My brother couldn’t go in, so he went home. They got a call awhile later – around midday there – they got the call that he had deteriorated even more, and they had to resuscitate him and put him on a ventilator. That’s the worst call I ever got in my life.
“He was at risk anyway. He is a 63-year old, diabetic black male with other health issues. Those were the people who were dying.
Then he wasn’t able to breathe at all. It was horrible knowing he was in the hospital by himself, not allowed any visitors. My mom was having to call the hospital, try to reach the ward he was in just to find out how he was doing. They were so overwhelmed. Normally it’s oneto- one or one-to-two in England in intensive care. They were operating one nurse to four patients. When she reached someone, it wasn’t even always the nurse dealing with him. And he was still throwing up, so it was hard to keep him on the oxygen. That further complicated things. We spent three or four days not being able to speak to him. He was on his own. That was the toughest part. You don’t know if you will ever be able to speak to him again. Especially for me, I had last seen them back in January when I left. I only get to see them once or twice a year. It’s so hard with the distance.”
It wasn’t until that second visit, and his dad being admitted to Whipps Cross Hospital, that both of them were finally tested. And as Scotland- Williamson feared more than anything, both were positive for COVID-19. While his mom had already been through the worst of it without hospitalization, his dad’s situation was frighteningly going downhill fast, keeping him in ICU for 10 days.
“They finally were able to get enough oxygen into him,” said Scotland-Williamson. “Because of the resources, as soon as you are able to breathe on your own, they have you leave the hospital because they don’t have enough beds. They called my brother and told him you have to come and pick him up. He got there and someone in the full PPE gear looking straight out of a sci fi movie came out with him in the wheelchair. He was looking pretty gaunt. They dropped him at the curbside and my brother brought him home.
“For the first five days he wasn’t really with it. The best way to describe it is as if he had a concussion. He didn’t have coherent thoughts. He was repeating questions. It was because of the lack of oxygen he had for a long time before his levels came back. That was strange. I think people think all these hard and fast rules, the 14 days of isolation, that on Day 14 you will feel great and be back to normal. My dad was out of the hospital for two weeks and he was feeling better mentally but he wasn’t back to normal. He still couldn’t breathe to full capacity. The first week he couldn’t walk to the bathroom on his own because of the weight he lost. In the second week he went up and down the stairs once a day. Then he started doing laps to the garden and sitting in the sun. He still couldn’t sleep for more than four hours because of shortness of breath. He hasn’t slept right since before this all hit.
“My dad came out of the hospital and said it was horrible. He said it was the worst experience of his life. It’s basically survival of the fittest, who is going to make it out. You are on a ventilator, can’t breathe, you think you are going to die. They come in and put your medication at the bottom of the bed because they can’t get close to you. He said there was no human connection for 10 days. You don’t know if you’ll ever see your wife, your sons again.”
Having both of his parents diagnosed with COVID-19 was more than Scotland-Williamson could have imagined. And the worst possible thoughts were running through his mind day and night.
“That was the most difficult time of my life, with both of them having it,” said Scotland- Williamson. “To be suddenly faced with potentially losing both of your parents at the same time it was awful. My brother didn’t get it. He was lucky or asymptomatic. He wasn’t even tested because of the lack of resources.
“My mom was sick and trying to hold it together for me and my brother when her husband is at death’s door and fighting for his life. I was thinking I won’t even be able to fly back for the funeral.
“I leave my phone on all of the time. I don’t think I have slept right since all of this started, especially because of the time difference. Usually I would hear something around 7 a.m., and that was 2 a.m. here. My day of panic started then. I would make my mom agree to a code that when she called, she had to tell me everything was all right. She would start talking and panic me because she wouldn’t tell me right away everything was OK. I just wanted to know right away if everything was OK. She asked me one time if I was alone and I was like, oh my God, is she going to tell me he is dead? I had so much anxiety.”
Over the last few weeks there have been positive, uplifting, even some lighthearted moments. His brother sent a video of his father that had him laughing for the first time in a long time. “My dad was in bed and this video was the best,” said Scotland-Williamson. “He was sitting in bed and said, ‘I am Lazarus, I am back from the dead, I am not leaving yet.’”
The phone conversations, sometimes two-tothree hours long, have helped. The family also assembles Catholic Mass every Sunday, all on FaceTime watching the stream from Saint Vincent College, where the Steelers typically hold training camp.
“My faith is my foundation,” said Scotland- Williamson. “My parents instilled that in me at a young age. At times like this I understand why. I never prayed that much in my life.”
Scotland-Williamson said he originally shared the first video of his mother on Instagram because his parents were among those who immediately heeded the warnings from government officials for isolation but still fell victim to the disease.
“As soon as it was announced, because my dad is diabetic and he is in the at-risk category, my parents were extra cautious and they still ended up getting it, even though they weren’t in contact with anyone who is believed to have had coronavirus,” said Scotland-Williamson. “That is the thing that is scary. You don’t know who has it.
“In England it was a very disjointed rollout of the guidance of what to do, similar to here. And that not everyone is getting tested, it’s hugely frustrating. They didn’t test my mom until my dad was in the hospital. They were only testing if they were admitting. They told them we are just presuming anyone with the symptoms is considered to have COVID, and if you can go home, go home. My dad was only tested after resuscitation. My brother was never tested even though my parents both had it. People aren’t getting tested until the symptoms are in your face, which is terrible.”
He also believed people don’t fully understand the impact the virus has on people, and that everyone has to take it seriously, even as portions of the United States have re-opened.
said Scotland-Williamson. “It can have a lasting effect, especially for an at-risk person. My dad gets tired really easily. He was a boxer in the past and he is all about the grind and getting back to normal. He doesn’t have the energy to do it, and he wonders why. The fighting spirit is the only thing that gets him through the situation. All through this my mom has still been recovering from what she had.
“I have taken this whole social distance thing really seriously. When this was first announced I knew people were at risk. I knew some of my friends weren’t taking it seriously, so I shared it on Instagram. When it happens to someone you know it is brought home how lethal and deadly this is. I encouraged everyone I have spoken to, and a lot of people reached out, to take it seriously. It restores your faith in humanity.
“Normal will look different for a long time. We have to accept it and not be frustrated. It’s the situation we are in, but it is for the greater good.”
Scotland-Williamson hasn’t seen his parents, other than on Facetime, since January when he was in England for his normal visit at the end of the season. And looking back on the visit he said it was one of the best ones he ever had, especially the time he spent with his father.
His father is a former senior police officer and super heavyweight amateur boxing champion, who went on to have a second career as a barrister and lawyer in the Church Court Chambers in the UK.
Scotland-Williamson hasn’t had a lot of time to spend at home since he was a boy. He went to boarding school from age 11 to 18, then college, and then turned pro in rugby. After that he moved to the United States to pursue a career in football with the Steelers, spending no more than six weeks at one time at home for the last 15 years.
“As men we sat down and talked about stuff,” said Scotland-Williamson. “I found out more about his boxing career, the trips he went on. All of the stories about it. He has so many stories. He was one of the first black police officers in England. And then he boxed with the police force.
“He went back to school with two young kids at home and got his master’s degree and became a lawyer. I have seen from both of my parents the blueprint of who I want to become. I always said if my dad can get two degrees and go from being a police officer to a lawyer, I have no excuse. He gave me the work ethic.”