Thrive by IU Health

May 27, 2020

Critical care physician diagnosed with COVID-19: “Too close for comfort”

IU Health Methodist Hospital

Critical care physician diagnosed with COVID-19: “Too close for comfort”

IU Health Dr. Mark Williams has dedicated most of his life to caring for critically ill patients. When he became diagnosed with COVID-19, he learned firsthand the challenges of fighting a disease that has raged the world.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes,

It was a painting of a lighthouse that held the attention of Dr. Mark Williams. As he rested his mind and body, he needed a focus, a distraction. He was looking for something that gave him reassurance during one of the sickest times in his life.

Williams, who turns 56 in June, thinks he may be among the first healthcare providers at IU Health Methodist Hospital who contracted COVID-19.

“This is the once in a century event we were all warned about and hoped we would never witness, but it’s here and for me, it came too close for comfort,” Williams wrote of his experience. He wanted to document his illness for hospital trainees.

It was March 9th when Williams traveled to New York City for business and pleasure.

“New York City was a different place on that day with minimal knowledge of the coronavirus penetration into that amazing concrete jungle,” wrote Williams. He knew there were added risks but, as a seasoned traveler, he chose to go forward with plans to speak about septic shock to a group of nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

Five days later he woke up at his Indianapolis home with a fever, significant muscle pain and fatigue, but no lower respiratory tract symptoms.

“Sometimes you just know - and I knew I had acquired the virus,” said Williams. In the days that followed, Williams remained self-quarantined as the symptoms increased - cough, headache, diarrhea, more muscle aches and what Williams called “incapacitating fatigue.” He was one of the first IU Health employees tested at the hospital’s satellite testing sites and within 36 hours he received the results. He tested positive for COVID-19.

The muscle aches and fever were tough but the toughest was what Williams calls “COVID brain.”

That was when he began focusing on the painting of the lighthouse hanging on his bedroom wall.

“I was unable to read and process data. For a physician scientist this was the most surprising clinical manifestation and for me personally, the most distressing,” said Williams who has worked at IU Health since 1993. His routine included spot checks with his pulse oximeter that provided reassurance as he tracked his heart rate and pulse. “Thankfully my heart rate was never greater than 120 and my pulse oximeter never dropped below 92%. I consider myself very fortunate to have avoided hospitalization,” he said.

“One of the happiest days of my life was when I was declared fit for service and was able to show up on 4 East at Methodist Hospital on March 30th. The patients were complex, they were critically ill, they were all alone and they needed me and my team,” said Williams. “I must admit I was excited to be there. I don’t share these feelings for false glory. To be clear, physicians on the front lines are not heroes. We are simply fulfilling our oath at this moment in time when Hippocrates may have run for the hills,” he said, referring to the Greek physician. “I think the real heroes are the nurses, the patient care assistants, the cleaning staff, the chaplains, the palliative care teams, the pharmacists, and the nutritionists. I especially want to pay homage to the respiratory therapists. I watched them take somewhat unknown risks being alone in the room during an extubation. My thanks to all of the members of the team and hope they know their sacrifice is acknowledged and appreciated,” he said.

Williams’ interest in science and medicine was sparked at an early age. He remembers writing a book report in fifth grade about the 1918 flu epidemic that killed nearly 700,000 people. Later, his first research project as a medical resident was on Polymerase chain reaction for Cytomegalovirus infection and he was inspired to pursue his career in pulmonary/critical care. In 2009 he worked with the United States Army Medical Research Institute on an Ebola project and also on a task force for the outbreak of swine flu. His research at IU Health Methodist Hospital includes clinical trials for septic shock and Acute Respiratory Stress Syndrome and will include trials for these vulnerable patients of COVID-19

“One of the hardest things while I was quarantined was the feeling of absolute helplessness because I wanted to be in the fight against the virus,” said Williams. He recently became one of more than 800 people who have recovered from the Coronavirus who have been screened by IU Health for plasma donation, and one of more than 350 who have been identified as a candidate for donation and referred to the Versiti Indiana Blood Center. According to IU Health transplant infectious disease doctor Nicolas Barros, 100 patients have benefitted from convalescent plasma.

By assisting with the screening process, IU Health is helping the blood center expedite the donation process to ensure enough convalescent plasma is available to hospitals for treatment of critically ill COVID-19 patients.

COVID-19 recovered plasma donation remains important as the Versiti Indiana Blood Center prepares for a possible surge in COVID-19 cases this fall. Plasma can be stored for up to a year.

To become a donor:

Plasma donors must be able to prove they had a COVID-19 diagnosis with a documented positive COVID-19 test or antibody COVID-19 laboratory test. Donors must also be symptom-free for 14 days.

“I have had a life long relationship with viruses, but I suspect this personal encounter with the coronavirus has forever changed me,” said Williams. “I think I’ll be more appreciative of health, a sound mind, friendship, family and human connection. I also need to be more present in my community to learn from and also teach the next generation of practitioners in my beloved field of critical care medicine.”