This is one in an occasional series about the everyday vaccine heroes of Texas. These aren’t the politicians or researchers or the authors of books. Rather, their personal experiences have made them deeply aware of the need to protect the public from vaccine-preventable diseases. Everyday vaccine heroes reach out beyond those personal situations to improve the health of the entire state.
No one knows better than Greg Williams that parents can’t protect their children from everything. His son Nicolis, a student at Texas A&M University, died seven years ago of bacterial meningitis. The disease, rare in the general population, is more of a threat among college students, who spend long hours together.
Williams would have made sure his son was vaccinated had he known it was recommended. At that point, students who lived on campus in Texas were required to be vaccinated, but not those who lived off-campus as Nicolis did.
If he hadn’t been able to save his own child, Williams decided, he would protect the children of other parents. Working closely with The Immunization Partnership, he was a driving force, along with meningitis survivor Jamie Schanbaum, behind legislation that now requires off-campus students at four-year colleges to get the meningitis vaccine. He and his family have started a nonprofit to raise awareness of the disease and the importance being vaccinated.
And in April, he published a book titled “Dare to Ask God Why?” about Nicolis’s death and the road that Williams has traveled to come to terms with it as well as any father can.
“When this situation happened with my son, I had to look beyond that and say, what bigger purpose can there be in this?” said Williams, a college administrator and resident of the Houston area. “I really wanted to prevent future death and suffering. The same thing could happen to some other students who aren’t vaccinated. If you can do something to change that, then you have a responsibility to humanity to do it.”
In his book, Williams is unsparing in recounting his son’s illness and death. The story is detailed and wrenching.
He recalls the devastating words spoken by a doctor after days of worrying and prayer: “Your son’s brain was so swollen that it forced his brainstem into his spinal column. I’m extremely sorry, but Nicolis cannot recover from this condition. He has no brain activity.”
It would still be a while before he would come to the point of accepting that there was no hope no hope for his son.
Now, faithless and hopeless, I abandoned all belief that Nic could be healed.
Nicolis Terrel Williams died.
Lowering my head in my hands, I cried and cried for my child. Not a single parent ever believes their child will precede them in death and I was no different. People die every minute of each day, but no one expects it of their child.
Yet, even in the midst of this grief, Williams and his family were thinking of how they might be able to save others, first by agreeing to organ donation. Then, at the suggestion of a friend, Williams began the work of advocating for legislation that would require the potentially lifesaving meningitis vaccine for non-resident students as well as those living in dorms. He was especially moved to take action after learning, even while his son was still in the hospital, that most of Nicolis’s college friends hadn’t been vaccinated.
“Things didn’t turn out the way I wanted,” he said, “but I’m relieved to know that lives will be saved because of my son’s sacrifice.”
Williams quickly found allies for his campaign, including the late state Sen. Charles Howard, a father who had also lost a son. Howard authored the meningitis-vaccine legislation that would ultimately become Texas law. The Immunization Partnership also was actively involved in helping the bill move through the Texas Legislature.
“They were so instrumental,” he said. “I was totally clueless.”
Williams considers his victory incomplete, though. As with Texas laws that allow parents to exempt their children from vaccines in public school for non-medical reasons, the law allows college students to do the same.
Those students can still pass the deadly illness to others, Williams points out. Why should that be allowed simply because some parents or students don’t like the idea of vaccination?
“I put it in terms of seatbelts,” he said. “They have to wear seatbelts whether they like the idea or not.”
Williams has another, fatherly reason for writing his book.
“I wanted people to understand the relationship between father and son,” he said. “I wanted people to know that fathers can love their sons in the same way they love their daughters, not to have that macho, distant kind of relationship.”
Williams was big on family times together, especially summer barbecues. He was openly affectionate with Nicolis for all of his young life. The grief of losing a child stays with Williams, but this is among the things he can look back on with gladness.
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