For Williams, a community activist, it would prove to be the most terrible, yet, most touching thing to happen to the 38-year-old father of seven in recent memory. It was an ordeal that ultimately brought him to tears and the realization that an unbreakable bond of love exists with his community.
Around the third week in September, Williams said he had coached a little league football team that weekend when his temperature suddenly rose to 103.7.
“I laid around the house that weekend and my wife, Ponzetta, kept telling me, ‘If you don’t feel any better you need to go to the walk-in clinic,’” Williams recalled. “Monday, I didn’t feel any better — I was hot and had chills — so I decided to go to the clinic. They told me they couldn’t do anything for me — that my temperature was too high and I needed to go the hospital. So I went to the emergency room at SkyRidge (Medical Center).”
Williams said he thought the doctors would simply give him some medicine and he would be released. Instead, he was rushed to the intensive care unit.
“They told me I had fever in my leg,” he said. “When I got to ICU they started running IVs and things. Before I knew it I couldn’t function anymore. I couldn’t even carry on a conversation! They were suddenly giving me papers to sign. My wife was with me and she started looking the papers over. Then she told me, ‘They want consent to cut your foot off!’”
The Cleveland couple was shocked. Williams said they wanted to cut his left leg off below the knee and one doctor was prepared to do so immediately.
“I heard a surgeon say, ‘We can cut it off and that will stop the infection from getting into your blood stream.’ I said, ‘What will stop the infection?’ He said, ‘Cutting it off.’ I said, ‘Hold on, man! I walked in here! I didn’t come in here because of my leg!’ He replied, ‘You don’t understand. Your leg has an infection in it.’”
Williams said they described the infection as a “flesh-eating disease.” The infection was, in fact, a flesh-eating bacteria, the most commonly known being necrotizing fasciitis, which can be life-threatening if not treated immediately. Necrotizing fasciitis is a bacterial infection commonly caused by group A Strep bacteria, which is the same bacteria that causes common Strep throat. The bacteria destroys soft tissue under the skin, and is often coupled with toxic shock syndrome. Both are deadly. If muscle is destroyed, it is necrotizing myositis.
Williams said he and his wife could not believe what was happening. He said he could hear the physicians having a passionate discussion about the best method for treating his infection, with one physician expressing concerns that Williams should not be subjected to an amputation, while another doctor expressed the opinion that he would be healed in a month and could get a prosthetic “and be on his way.”
One of the doctors pulled Ponzetta aside, according to Williams, and reassured her that they were not going to amputate her husband’s leg but would try alternatives to save it and keep them informed before anything took place.
“My wife had people talking to her and praying for us,” Williams said. “Let me tell you — prayer changes things. They got me out of SkyRidge and took me to Erlanger Hospital. The doctors there decided not to amputate. I went through five surgeries in the first three days. They cut all of the infection out of my leg and ended up doing skin grafts. They took skin from my left thigh and stapled it onto my leg. That’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. They also put me on different medications to make sure I had all of the infection out of my body.”
According to the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation, flesh-eating bacteria must be treated in the hospital with antibiotic IVE therapy and aggressive removal of the affected tissue. The doctors could save Williams’ leg, but it would come with a cost — a financial cost that included out-of-pocket medical expenses, deductibles and loss of wages while recovering.
With no extra income coming in while temporarily disabled, Williams, who is known for his works in the community and for reaching out to youths and elderly in need, suddenly found himself in need of help. That need would be met by a family of friends and community support unlike anything he could imagine.
Spearheaded by his longtime friend and coworker, Dan Reed, the voice of the Cleveland community rose to action, using the fastest form of technological communication available.
“We posted on Facebook how sick Rodney was and that we wanted to do a fish fry as a fundraiser on behalf of him and his family,” Reed said. “In one day I had 103 phone calls after people saw it on Facebook. The community not only came out and bought food, they actually brought more food for us to sell! They donated some 200 pounds of fish and 200 pounds of chicken. Everything we needed was donated by the community.
“People were coming by purchasing fish sandwiches and giving $50 donations, writing $100 checks! The response was so overwhelming that it touched me and Rodney in such a way that we knew we would never leave this community. We wanted to say thank you to everyone because they had our back and we will always have theirs. We really appreciate what they did.”
Support flooded in from the NAACP, 100 Black Men of Bradley County Inc., Masonic groups, the faith-based community, individuals and local businesses who offered a hand up to a man who never asked for a handout, but always had his hand out to help others. The response was so overwhelming that it brought Williams to tears on several occasions, including this interview.
“This community has been great — beyond belief,” Williams said, as tears rolled down his face. “People came by bringing me cards with money — people I didn’t even know! They said, ‘Brother, we know your works in the neighborhood.’ It was just giving, giving, giving, giving. They really, really took care of me and my family. I mean, when you have people coming out of the woodwork and just doing for you — and I don’t have any people here — but they came out and did for me and my family. It’s amazing! It’s truly amazing.”
Reed admits, “I can’t even begin to tell you how overwhelming it was to see that kind of response and community support. So many churches and individuals were involved — they really went into action. I love Rodney like a brother. To see how everyone came through for him really touched me. He coaches at the College Hill Recreational Center, he volunteers a lot of his time to work with children, his church, he’s part of the Masonic group, a member of the NAACP and he is always contributing to help others. Then they stepped up and did this. We were all overwhelmed.”
“I can’t wait to get back on my feet!” Williams said. “I have a lot of work to do. I’ve had time to think and I know what needs to be done. I want to be a soldier — not just an advocate but a soldier — to get more things done for our youths and seniors. Anywhere there is a need for help, I am going to try to be there.”
Williams, the owner of R&B Barber Shop on Inman Street, said he understands how George Bailey felt at the end of the classic holiday film, “It’s A Wonderful Life,” because like Bedford Falls, Bradley County gave him and his family love, joy, peace and hope in their time of need.
“Everyone kept asking me did I get bit or had I been around water,” Williams said. “I never knew where it came from or how it happened. We never figured that out. But God is good.”
According to the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation, the necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating) bacteria “can enter the body through an opening in the skin, quite often a very minor opening, even as small as a paper cut, a staple puncture or a pin prick. It can also enter through weakened skin, like a bruise, blister, or abrasion. It can also be caused by other bacteria or a mixture of bacteria.
“Any time all of the early symptoms are present, go to a doctor at once, and insist that this be ruled out. The vast majority of cases are misdiagnosed,” the foundation said.