Dorothy Williams’ life had held a force of stability in a year when that’s felt hard to come by.
The 56-year-old registered nurse at Providence Broadway Internal Medicine makes daily rounds to patients for prescription refills and hospital follow-ups, patient after patient, each one typically by phone. She administers infused medications for those who still need them done in person. As the only registered nurse in the department, Williams works for all seven doctors. Working in internal medicine, the patients are typically older. After greeting the same patients for years, both ends of the phone call enjoy the familiarity.
“When I call, they say, ‘Hello Dorothy,’” she said.
Williams has largely been spared the pandemic’s onslaught on the health care industry and its workers. She’s not clocking extra hours and most of her patients who contracted the virus recovered quickly. As the health crisis rages on, a few colleagues in her department have contracted the virus and needed someone to fill in. It’s a different scene than the Intensive Care Unit where capacities are tested.
“It’s not like every day, every day; working short; always stressed,” she said. “It is not like that in this department at all.”
In a time when people are unfastened from their lives every day through the random collisions with COVID-19, Williams has been a part of the system that is fixed in place. But just before Thanksgiving, it was Williams who was thrown off course, at an intersection with an entirely different crisis. In interviews with the Missoulian over the last two weeks, Williams has vaulted a horrific experience by giving dignity to the memory of someone she did not know.
Most days, Williams takes a walk on the trail along the Clark Fork River. It’s good exercise, and Williams said she’s the kind to smile, nod, and look around at the moving water. The trail begins near the Orange Street Bridge, a block away from the hospital, at the foot of an old parking garage Williams has used for 19 years.
On Friday, Nov. 20, Williams was calling her daughter as she headed down the parking ramp and turned left onto the trail. She didn’t notice an abandoned wheelchair off to her right.
On her way back, she did see it, near the trail entrance. Approaching carefully, Williams wondered whether she should just leave someone to their nap.
Her nursing instincts ignited. “It’s cold outside,” Williams thought. She stepped one foot off the trail and called out, “Hello?”
She called out again, each time she took a step closer to the wheelchair. It had a yellow backpack slung over the handles. Then she saw the person lying on the ground in front of it.
Williams didn’t call out again. She moved around the wheelchair to see a person lying on their side, and from the pallor of the exposed right hand Williams said she could tell they were dead.
“It had that gray, you know, tint to it,” Williams said.
The person’s face was covered by some article of clothing, but she could still see blood.
Williams called 911 and reported she had found a body. The dispatcher asked her to check if other people were around, whether there was a bloodied weapon nearby or any firearms. No, no and no.
“I kind of feel like I went into robot mode,” Williams said. “She wanted my name and where I was, my location, and she asked me am I sure? And I said, I’m sure, I’m a nurse. I could tell.
“And then she asked if I had checked for a pulse and honestly I had not.”
That missed detail made Williams’ doubt her instincts. After she hung up the phone and started waiting for the officer, she reached down and lifted the cloth off the person’s head, exposing the man’s skull. Williams said it was bashed in and bloodied.
Missoula police arrived within minutes. Williams gave an officer what little information she had and then started back for the hospital. According to Missoula police, the officer reached the scene at 12:47 p.m.
Dorothy told her boss what happened, but declined an offer to go home. She sat down at her phone and started dialing patients, back to her steady motions. But it was hard to focus, Williams said, and after an hour she stood up from her desk. She spoke to her supervisor again, and this time accepted a more pressing offer to take the rest of that Friday off.
Williams told some of the other nurses what had happened. And that’s when the tears came pouring out.
“I come from a generation where headaches don’t stop us,” Williams said. “There isn’t a whole lot of things that stop us. We work through pain, we work through suffering…. I don’t put myself first, I put other people first. And there are times when, I guess, I realized when my boss said that to me (to go home), like it gave me permission to really recognize what I had just experienced was awful and traumatic.”
Williams left the hospital and called her husband from the car.
“It rocked her pretty good,” said Carl Williams, Dorothy’s husband. “She was angry that that can happen in our city, and right down where she walks. She didn’t want things to be that way.”
When Williams went to bed that night, she was haunted. She saw the man’s face when she woke up, when she sat down, when she stood still in the shower. She tried working and cleaning around the house, a Sisyphean task to keep the man’s face out of her mind.
By Sunday, she decided to bring flowers to that spot off the trail. Williams said she believes she was fortifying herself to go near that place again. She made herself a promise to bear some kind of witness for this man, even though she still didn’t know his name. She doubled down a day later, when she learned the man might be buried at a local cemetery for indigents.
“This was a man who was vulnerable and unable to defend himself,” she said. “And I just was not OK with it being just kind of snuffed away.”
Peggy Love was behind the bar at the Reno in East Missoula on Nov. 25 when her husband came through the door and announced Lee Nelson, that small-statured man — something of a regular years ago when he was living under the nearby overpass — had been murdered the Friday before. Apparently over some cigarettes.
Nelson hadn’t been to the bar in years. From time to time, Nelson would pee himself after too much to drink. Eventually it was one of the other bartenders, Love said, who kicked him out after one of his accidents. But Love still remembered him fondly. She had watched Nelson offer customers some of his trinkets out of spontaneous generosity. She had seem him roar “Back in the Saddle” by Aerosmith on the karaoke stage to the crowd’s delight. And she remembered how he sat at the bar and kept her company close to closing time so she wasn’t left alone.
One woman at the bar piped up: Her cousin, a nurse at St. Pat’s, was the one who found him. Love went home that night with an itch in the back of her mind about Lee’s death. But the next morning, she couldn’t stop thinking of Nelson and the woman who uncovered him.
“It just kept hitting me harder and harder and harder,” Love said. “I got through Friday and Saturday morning and then thought, ‘I can’t do this.’”
Love connected with a woman who knew the woman at the bar, and navigated social media until she found Dorothy Williams.
“It was just something I couldn’t let go of, that this woman had found him,” she said. “I just needed to talk to her. And I’m so glad that happened.”
At the time Love connected with her, Williams was still seeing Nelson’s crushed face in her quiet moments, but she had at least gotten his name from the police detective on Nelson’s case. Williams had, in a sense of self-preservation as well as mourning, been going to the site where she had found Lee every single day. She took flowers with a friend. She went with a hospital chaplain to pray. She asked Guy Baker, the Missoula police detective, to build a cairn with her as a sort-of headstone. But just as Nelson’s blood still clung to the concrete at the foot of the parking garage, Williams couldn’t shut out the image of his grisly murder. In the days before anyone had been arrested for killing Nelson, Williams couldn’t bring herself to leave her car at the parking garage she had used for almost two decades.
“I was terrified,” she said. “Absolutely terrified.”
But she couldn’t stay away. The day after Thanksgiving, Williams went back to the site where Nelson died and continued adding to his memorial with a cross, candles and more flowers.
When the two women met the following day, Love had something Williams couldn’t get at the scene: A picture of Nelson.
“I think making that contact with Peggy and getting the picture of Lee, I’ve been able to start replacing the image of his dead body with the picture that she sent me with him sitting at the bar with a viking hat on, with eyes that sparkle,” Williams said. “I am not kidding. When you look at this picture of this man, I am not kidding, his eyes sparkle.”
Love also brought with her a wealth of stories of Nelson, who Williams had learned so little about in the last week. The bartender told the nurse about Nelson’s propensity for giving things to people on a whim; how he may have had hip surgery, hence the wheelchair; how he had lived outdoors, but had come close to housing many times.
“We can’t do anything about what happened yesterday,” Love said. “We can bring this horrible tragedy to the awareness of the people and show people to be kind to people, because that’s what Lee was. He was kind.”
The Monday after Williams met with Love, she returned to work feeling empowered, like her inclination to reach into this stranger’s life, to make sense of the grief for a man she never met, had paid off. Her hospital office is on the fourth floor with a big window, and she described looking up for a moment from her computer and feeling free. After receiving his ashes — the Missoula County undersheriff said law enforcement was unable to connect with anyone in Nelson’s family — Williams lent them to Love, so she can set Nelson on the bar one more time before he’s officially laid to rest.
“When I heard some of the stories that Peggy had to say about this lovely, wonderful man, I felt something kind of fall away inside of my heart that had been really aching,” Williams said. “I felt a lightness, like I could breathe a little better.”
Coming Monday: Unknown but not unloved: Man’s death spotlights homelessness
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