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Former St. Petersburg council member Earnest Williams awaits lung transplant

Former St. Petersburg City Council member Earnest Williams has fought a few battles in his 64 years. He helped desegregate lunch counters, became one of the first African-Americans to attend a Panhandle community college and has run for public office six times, twice successfully.

Now Williams is fighting for breath. He has sarcoidosis, an abnormal inflammation that can affect any part of the body. Williams' lungs are affected, making it impossible for him to breathe without assistance.

"The only out for me is a transplant," he said recently, as he drew breaths with the help of tubes threaded through his nostrils and trailing to an oxygen machine yards away.

"I can't leave the house without portable oxygen," he said.

Williams is on the waiting list for a double lung transplant at Tampa General Hospital. He hopes the call to cross the bridge will come soon.

"We keep phones everywhere," he said, adding that he has two hours to get to the hospital when a lung becomes available.

He was in good spirits and spoke knowledgeably about the disease that has disrupted his life. It often affects African-Americans and people of Asian, German, Irish, Puerto Rican and Scandinavian descent, he said. And, anticipating the inevitable question, he mentioned that he has never smoked.

The exact cause of sarcoidosis is unknown, though medical professionals think it occurs when a person's immune system overreacts to a foreign substance, said Tarik Haddad, a transplant pulmonologist at Tampa General and Williams' physician.

He specializes in patients with advanced lung diseases like Williams'. He said mild cases of the disease can go away without treatment.

"Rarely does it progress to the stage where Mr. Williams is at, and when it does, it is fatal without a lung transplant," Haddad said.

Chances of survival after a lung transplant are 92 percent after one year, 86 percent after three years and 60 percent after year five at Tampa General, the doctor said. He said the rates are higher than current national statistics.

Haddad said the survival rate drops so low after the fifth year because of rejection caused by chronic inflammation, "because the lungs are typically exposed to the everyday environment."

Williams has had the disease for a while.

"It didn't affect me that much until about two months ago, when I had difficulty breathing," he said. "I just couldn't get my breath. My wife called the paramedics."

He was rushed to St. Anthony's Hospital and remained there for three days. He is now undergoing physical therapy to build up stamina for the transplant.

He is grateful for the support of his wife, Armetha, their two adult daughters and two grandchildren. He relishes visits from friends and said a prayer circle at City Hall is one of the many ways people are showing concern.

"I recognize that once a person is ill how wonderful it is to hear from other people," he said. "I understand that there are people out there who may not have that support."

He's resolved to help change that when he's better.

His daughter, Tacilya, is running the State Farm Insurance business he started in 1985.

In his down time, he's become a keen observer of the local and national political landscape.

What happened in the mid-term elections, he said, "was that many of the people who are not satisfied with the way the economy is going showed up to let people know how discontented they were."

"Don't get him talking about politics or education or you'll be there forever," joked longtime friend Watson Haynes. "When you start him talking about that, he forgets that he's waiting for a donor."

There's no question where his political allegiance lies. A photograph of President Barack Obama sits on an easel in his foyer, a present from his wife.

Williams, who first sought public office in 1993, said those days are behind him. "Let some of these younger people come in," he said.

Born in Marianna, Williams is proud of his heritage, which includes Cherokee ancestors on his mother's side and Seminoles on his father's. His grandfather ran a pool room and various businesses, an uncle was successful in real estate and his great-grandfather, who was born in slavery, was the first African-American to get a federal land grant in Jackson County. His great-great-grandfather fought for the Union in the Civil War.

He himself was part of an NAACP youth group that helped desegregate lunch counters in the Panhandle.

Williams moved to St. Petersburg in 1973. Haynes has known him since then. The two are members of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. Haynes, a minister, is the group's assistant chaplain. The men have talked and prayed about Williams' illness.

"God sometimes has something happen not just for the person, but for the people around," Haynes said.

"Every life that Earnest has touched, there is a message in this and there is hope, not only his hope, but the hope of somebody who carries that donor card in their wallet who could say, when I die, I will be able to give life to somebody else. So that person, even through Earnest, never dies."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Former St. Petersburg council member Earnest Williams awaits lung transplant 11/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 6, 2010 9:23pm]
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