On August 4, Thomas “Nicholas” Williams was in his wheelchair under a tree, waiting for a storm to pass near his Pompano Beach home, when he was struck by lightning. As the wheelchair caught fire, neighbors called 911 as they tried to help the 28-year-old. When Pompano Beach Fire Rescue arrived, Williams was unconscious and immediately taken to the nearest hospital.
En route, he suffered a heart attack, and it took paramedics four minutes to revive him. Once stabilized, Williams was transferred to the Miami Burn Center located in Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital, where he was seen by a multidisciplinary team of UHealth and Jackson physicians.
These included Joyce Kaufman, MD, trauma surgeon; Carl Schulman, MD, PhD, MSPH, FACS, trauma/burn surgeon; Gregory Holt, MD, pulmonologist; and Gemayaret Alvarez-Gonzalez, MD, physical medicine and rehabilitation.
“When he arrived, he was post-cardiac arrest, requiring full supportive care,” Dr. Schulman said. “He was unconscious with no significant movements or response.”
Williams remained in a coma for almost a week, battling pneumonia and remaining intubated for several weeks after that. It was unknown if he had suffered any permanent brain damage.
“ICU medicine exposes us to frightening human tragedy, but what makes it truly rewarding is meeting people like Nick,” Dr. Holt said. “Nick faced the complications from the lightning strike with an attitude of determined conviction that he would overcome his injuries, confirming my belief in the power of the human spirit.”
Williams’ family believes the power of prayer and community support is what kept their faith going as he slowly recovered. They remember the first positive sign was when he started mouthing their prayers.
Over the course of his hospitalization, Williams received extensive occupational, physical, and speech therapy at Jackson Rehabilitation Hospital.
“He is a testament of resilience,” Dr. Alvarez-Gonzalez said. “He has surpassed our expectations on his recovery, based on the severity of his injuries.”
This was not the first time Williams had a near-death experience. In May 2008, Williams was in a car crash that left him paralyzed from the chest down, receiving comprehensive rehabilitation services at Jackson Rehabilitation Hospital. At that time, he was a volleyball player at Cardinal Gibbons High School.
“We were told it didn’t look good, but he’s defied the odds both times,” said his mother, Donna Pappas. “We’re thankful to Jackson for saving my son’s life twice.”
After the first traumatic incident, Williams graduated high school and college, met his soon-to-be wife, Emily Netter, and became a motivational speaker. He keeps active by playing wheelchair tennis twice a week, and he works as a substitute teacher at his former high school.
“If you work hard and stay positive, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Williams, who looks forward to being home for Thanksgiving with his family. “Keep a positive attitude and mindset to move forward.”