by Michele Newbern Gillis
Cal Williams knows what it’s like to experience a miracle.
It was 1989 and getting out of bed, he realized something wasn’t right.
“I had been to a party the night before, but I only had three beers,” he said. “I remember sitting on the side of the bed and thinking, ‘If I can only drink three beers and feel like this in the morning, I just don’t think I want to drink beer anymore.’
“I made coffee and sat down to read the paper. When I got up to get in the shower, my right leg wouldn’t support me. I fell. I couldn’t stand up. I was floundering on the floor like a tuna.”
That was the start of a long journey for Williams, who is probably best-known as the chairman of the Northeast Florida Builders Association’s Sales and Marketing Council. He is also a longtime Beazer Homes site agent who recently joined Lennar.
Williams has a slow gait and halting speech. Now, you’re going to find out why he walks and talks that way.
When Williams fell, his wife Anna immediately called his best friend of 30 years, Harris Willman.
“I lived a few blocks away, so I came over immediately,” said Willman. “Cal was sitting on his bed trying to figure out what had just happened. We determined pretty quickly that he needed to go to the hospital.”
Williams also called Stan Longenecker, an orthopedic surgeon.
“I thought it was a pinched nerve,” said Williams. “Stan told me to take two aspirin and call him in 30 minutes. It turns that he probably saved my life. I called him back and told him how I was feeling and he said to meet him at St. Vincent’s emergency room.”
At the hospital, the whole situation took a dramatic turn as tests were done and it was determined the situation was a lot worse than originally thought.
Longenecker said that he didn’t need an orthopedic doctor.
“The words weren’t out of his mouth before out of the corner of my eye I saw Scotty Boggs go by, who was a neurosurgeon,” said Williams. “He stuck his head in the door and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said ‘Ask Stan.’”
The doctors went down the hall to talk. All Williams knew was that he had a problem that might not be an easy fix.
“During this whole process, the only pain I had was when they stuck me with needles to get blood or start IVs,” said Williams. “I was a little bit concerned because I didn’t know what was going on yet.”
Williams was diagnosed with an Arterial Venus Malformation in his brain. Simply stated, an AVM is an abnormal collection of blood vessels.
“As I understand it, when you are born, all of your blood vessels are external to your brain and as you get closer and closer to being delivered, those dissolve and switch to the internal blood vessels,” he said. “Well, mine never dissolved so I had an extra set of blood vessels. They were not designed to last 43 years, so that’s what ruptured. The good news is that mine only leaked. If mine had ruptured, I would have had a stroke and been dead before I hit the floor.”
And death was still a factor.
“I was told that that it was less than 50-50 that I would survive an operation,” he said.
“He had a huge AVM that he hemorrhaged from. Generally, in aneurisms and AVMs, about 50 percent of the people that bleed never get to the hospital,” said Boggs. “It was an extremely difficult problem. The location of the AVM on his brian and the size of it made the risk of surgery very high.”
That prognosis was pretty scary for friends and family.
“I was thinking pretty dire (thoughts) at the time,” said Willman. “I was thinking about his wife and his two fairly young children. I was just very concerned for them as a family. He was the primary provider and all that.”
His wife concurs.
“It felt like the world stopped,” said Anna. “I felt very afraid. I was scared to death because Cal had never been sick a day in his life.”
Brain surgery was scheduled and Cal had 28 people praying for him in St. Vincent’s chapel. This wasn’t an outpatient procedure, either. Williams was facing almost 24 hours under the knife.
“As I headed into surgery, I had total and complete peace,” said Williams. “I had no doubt in my mind that we just had to get the surgery done and I’d be better. There was no question in my mind that that was the case.”
Williams hemorrhaged during the first surgery and it had to be stopped.
“There were complications with bleeding that caused us to arbitrarily stop the operation and come back later,” said Boggs.
A second surgery in January of 1990 fixed the problem.
The second surgery proved to be a little easier as Boggs determined exactly what was wrong.
“The second time we were pretty confident that the results would be good,” said Willman.
After the second surgery, Williams was paralyzed on his right side and could not speak. Over the next two years, he had to learn to write, speak and walk again.
“It took me about six months before I could speak again,” he said. “I can’t express how hard it is when you have thoughts running through your mind and you can’t express them.”
Since Williams had brain surgery, his brain had to learn new pathways to communicate with his body since a large part of his brain had been removed.
“If you go through something like this, when you get done, you have to believe in God,” said Williams. “The human body is an amazing thing. There’s no way this could be built by anyone but God.”
Eventually, Williams was able to focus on getting better. Recovery was tough, but the only problem Cal still has a little bit of a challenge with critical thinking. He also has to wear a brace on his right foot, which causes him to limp.
“The reason that he is paralyzed in his leg stems from the original hemorrhage that he had,” said Boggs. “He has made a fantastic recovery. He has done extremely well. He and his wife are fantastic people. Cal has always been extremely positive and I think that helped him quite a bit too.”
Despite his slowness of walk and speech, Cal is as sharp as ever and his wit is evident as he entertains SMC attendees each month. He said he worries sometimes what others think of him, but his success in real estate and his chairing SMC allow people to see past the physical aspects.
“I’ve had the best 15 years in the business that I’ve ever had,” he said. “I’m not as hyper as I used to be and I’m a lot more focused. I don’t think my personality changed a lot, but I do think I am more conservative than I used to be.”