ER doctor

Dr. Paul Williams recounts real life in the ER in the age of COVID-19


No one imagined the drastic changes the pandemic could have brought to the world at large. It ultimately gave everyone — and everything — pause.

The malls, once full with bustling shoppers, now remain mostly empty. Restaurants, where tables held birthday and graduation parties or special evenings out, are now topped with chairs.

People have had to adapt to a new lifestyle of social distancing while trying to maintain some sort of normalcy. During this unstable time in history, most have tried to hold on to a shred of the routines they’ve practiced for years, whether it’s that morning coffee with your spouse before work to ordering from your favorite restaurant for curbside pickup.

Most have done their best to combat the virus by staying home and being safe, even among all the changes.

One thing that has not and will not change, for the most part, is the confidence people have in medical professionals. Before the pandemic, they were there for us when we broke a bone as a kid, helped families-to-be, cared for our grandparents and parents, or maybe even checked up on that stomach ache.

Now, more than ever, we need these medical professionals who’ve been working the front lines of this pandemic.

Dr. Paul Williams, emergency medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, gives us an insight of what it’s like.

Mankato Magazine: First and foremost, how are you personally feeling with the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr. Paul Williams: Optimistic, but guarded. I feel our regional health systems are well prepared for this and luckily have not yet had the same case numbers that are affecting other American cities and certain countries throughout the world. I am also hopeful that the medical and scientific community will develop a vaccine and complete trials looking at treatment options for the acutely ill. A more depressing tone takes over when you think of the direct impact this is having on so many people and the number of lives lost.

MM: Medical professionals are at the front line of the pandemic. Can you tell us a little bit about what that looks like and what that means for you?

Dr. PW: I don’t want to speak for every medical professional, but I see my role as one of necessity and responsibility. Going to work and caring for patients with COVID-19 does increase the likelihood of contracting the virus, but this is an inherent risk with the profession. Within the hospital and the region, there are countless people working to make sure we work in the safest environment possible and make sure we are healthy for our patients who do not have COVID-19. Given so many people are looking out for us as front-line staff, we are essentially doing what we have always been doing: caring for patients, but with an increased focus on personal protective equipment.

MM: What does the day of an emergency physician look like?

Dr. PW: Every day is different, even during a pandemic. People are still having heart attacks, strokes and accidents. Adding in a pandemic is manageable due to the cognitive shifting that occurs in such a fast-paced environment. The Emergency Department is a place where you can console a grieving family and, in the same hour, fix someone’s dislocated shoulder and they walk out happy.

MM: What initially interested you in a medical career? Was it your first choice?

Dr. PW: I have always enjoyed helping others, and I excelled at biology. I have always enjoyed both equally, and that made medicine an easy choice. I probably didn’t seriously consider medicine until taking an anatomy class at Mankato West High School. After that, I focused my college life on the goal of becoming a physician.

MM: Can you tell us one of your favorite moments on the job?

Dr. PW: My favorite moments are those in which I know I made a difference to the patients or their families. Every day I meet people whom I likely would never have met and walk them through one of the hardest days of their life.

MM: What is something that you do to relax?

Dr. PW: When time allows, my wife and I enjoy walking our dog around the neighborhood and spending time outdoors. We have modified these activities to practice good social distancing, but there is no reason to completely avoid the outdoors. For those of us who are spending more time at home, it is a good way to break up the monotony. I have some new golf clubs, and I am hoping to use them, if only to go to the driving range and work on my terrible swing.

MM: How will COVID-19 change the medical field? How about yourself?

Dr. PW: I think this pandemic will be a catalyst for telehealth, such as video visits, to be a popular option going forward for primary care visits and specialist appointments. I also think preparedness and disaster planning will get more funding and considerations in every facet of life. As for myself, with panic buying having affected us all at some point, I am looking forward to having the option of buying toilet paper again.

MM: What is something people would find surprising about your field?

Dr. PW: We spend a lot of time on the computer reading old charts, writing charts, placing orders, looking at results and communicating with other providers. Technology has allowed us to achieve some wonderful things as it pertains to medicine, and sometimes the patients are unaware of the time it takes to compile all of this information and formulate a treatment plan.

MM: What would you like readers to know about the coronavirus?

Dr. PW: We are still learning so much about SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. New information comes out daily. It is important to use reputable sources (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Minnesota Department of Health, etc.) and be careful of less stringent sources. Given so many unknowns and recommendations changing with new information, it is so important for people to keep listening to reputable updates and not be so entrenched in a belief or opinion.

MM: Tell us why people shouldn’t browse on WebMD.

Dr. PW: It is not that people shouldn’t browse WebMD or maybe other more reputable medical websites. But I would caution anyone who is attempting to self-diagnose a condition or get medical advice from these websites. People should not substitute medical care by a licensed provider for their ability to use a search engine. Even doctors get care from other doctors.

MM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Dr. PW: I would like to thank everyone in the community for working together during these trying times. Everyone has a role in this pandemic, and everyone is doing a good job keeping the community going. I don’t know how long this will last, but I know we will get through this.

Finally, it’s important for people to know it is safe to come to all Mayo Clinic locations if directed by your health care provider or if you have an urgent or emergent need. Do not delay seeking care for an emergency. Mayo Clinic and Mayo Clinic Health System are fully prepared to care for any and all patients who need to seek care during the pandemic. We have protocols in place to keep those with possible COVID-19 symptoms out of the general population and to protect all staff who come into contact with those patients.

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