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'It's been overwhelming' | Atlanta teacher says impact of COVID delayed her care as hospitals see patient increase

An MRI found many masses inside Lynette Williams' body. Neurologists say that had her surgery been canceled, she could've been paralyzed.

ATLANTA — Lynette Williams went on a camping trip last October to celebrate her birthday, but instead, it would spark a long and frustrating medical journey.

She woke up the next morning with unexpected hand tremors. Whenever she'd put up her right hand, it would start shaking. A few days later, that escalated to a sharp pain in her right shoulder. 

The first-grade teacher at Dunwoody Christian Academy went to urgent care and said the X-rays didn't pick up anything, a sign that it was a neurological issue. She scheduled an appointment with a specialist, who told her the pain could be rooted in stress. 

Williams tried scheduling an MRI. She was told the earliest appointment was for February as hospitals struggled to keep up with primary care and the ever-changing pandemic.

"I had to wait till the end of January, February just to get an appointment. So it's been a journey. It's been overwhelming and it's been depressing," she said.

Months went by with little sleep. Her pain and tremors only got worse, until she could hardly stand up on New Year's weekend and decided to go to the emergency room at Emory University Hospital in Midtown.

“[The nurse] was like, 'how long this been going on?'" Williams recounted. She explained to the nurse that she had been undergoing pain for months and struggled to get an appointment.

"I don't know what would have happened if I wouldn't have went to the emergency room," she said, after finally getting help.

It's for emergencies like hers that hospitals are asking those seeking COVID-19 testing to not go to emergency rooms, which have seen an increase in patients.

As the omicron variant has rapidly spread throughout Georgia, local hospitals have noticed an uptick in patients seeking everyday coronavirus care, from treating mild symptoms to trying to get tested for the virus, hospitals said. 

Credit: Provided

In a statement, Emory Healthcare, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Grady Health System, Northeast Georgia Health System, Piedmont Healthcare and Wellstar Health System write: 

"Emergency room activity has increased significantly for both emergent and non-emergent situations, including those seeking COVID-19 testing without the need for further care or treatment. To keep emergency rooms available to individuals who have the most critical health needs, we encourage the public to utilize COVID-19 testing through the use of urgent care and primary care locations, public health and mass testing sites, and at-home testing kits."

While at the hospital, Williams finally received an MRI. The scan found masses on her spine, neck, breast and liver. She needed surgery, which she said was going to get canceled.

"Due to short staff and COVID," she said. "A lot of patient had COVID some of the staff had COVID as well. So they was gonna cancel my appointment."

Her doctor fought for her to receive immediate attention, she said. 

"But like my neurologist said, I didn't have three, four weeks left, I would have been paralyzed," she said.

She said her doctor fought for three hours to get her help.

Credit: Provided.

Doctors have performed three surgeries so far, with the potential of more to come, along with radiation and possible chemotherapy, according to Williams.

She said she is very grateful for her school support system, her family, friends, and the doctors at Emory that she says are incredible.

"One of my night nurses came, they said 'you're a walking miracle' because they read my report with the tumor, and they did take the tumor from the back of my neck," she said. "I love this hospital - they are the best. They've been on my side."

As the bills accumulated, her teaching community created a fundraiser to help her out.

To donate to her fundraiser, click here.

Editor's note: This story originally said Williams worked at Decatur Christian Academy, the story has since been updated to reflect her employment at Dunwoody Christian Academy.

11Alive reached out to other hospital systems to see how COVID-19 is impacting staffing and elective surgery care. Read their statements below.

Emory Healthcare:

"Caring for our patients remains our top priority at Emory Healthcare. Due to the increased number of COVID-19 cases, health care staffing remains a concern. We are challenged with the number of positive cases, even among those who are vaccinated, and the demands this will cause on our workforce.

To keep our patients and staff healthy and safe and our hospitals available to all who need care, we ask for the public’s help in getting vaccinated and receiving booster shots when eligible; wearing masks over both your nose and mouth; distancing yourself from others, including in outdoor settings; and washing your hands routinely and thoroughly."

Wellstar Health System:

"As a result of the rapid spread of the highly transmissible Omicron and Delta variants, Wellstar Health System is currently experiencing a surge in patient volume across our Emergency Departments (EDs), urgent care centers, and hospitals of adults and children with COVID-19 symptoms and diagnoses. At this time, approximately 70 percent of COVID-19 patients hospitalized at Wellstar are unvaccinated, which mirrors what we are seeing across the state and nation.

 As of Jan. 7, across Wellstar Health System we had 768 COVID-positive patients admitted at our hospitals and another 288 Patients Under Investigation (PUIs) for COVID-19, representing a 15% increase since Sunday, Jan. 2 – just five days earlier. At that time, we had 276 ICU beds in use across the system. 58% of ICU beds were in use for COVID-19 or PUIs.

Actions that will help alleviate diversions and long ED wait times are for the public to get vaccinated – including boosters when eligible – and practice the “3 Ws” safety measures – wear a mask, wash your hands, and watch your distance; to go to the right medical facility for their medical condition; to get their regular check-ups and screenings with a Wellstar physician; and to not delay care until they are critically ill. Testing for symptoms or exposure to COVID-19 is also advised. For a routine COVID-19 test, find a location at https://dph.georgia.gov/covidtesting. EDs at hospitals are for people seeking care in life-threatening or critical situations, not for routine COVID-19 testing.

The best protection we currently have against the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic is vaccination, which scientific and clinical evidence shows is safe and effective in preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death."

Grady Health System says on Friday there were 243 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, which amounts to about 40% of inpatient beds. It continues to do elective surgeries.