SEQUIM — The family of a fixture of Sequim schools is raising funds to help defray costs for an unexpected and nearly fatal series of strokes.
Mark Willis, former Sequim Middle School principal and Sequim High School assistant principal, was airlifted to Swedish Medical Center’s Cherry Hill campus on Jan. 9, one day after entering Olympic Medical Center’s emergency room in Port Angeles.
Suffering from what family members said was a painful migraine and minor stroke-like symptoms, Willis was initially suffering from a carotid dissection, a tear in his artery within his neck.
“We were told he would be put on blood thinners and hopefully improve and the dissection would heal,” family members noted on a GoFundMe page this week.
On Jan. 9, Willis’ symptoms got worse, including confusion and an inability to speak. A second MRI found he had 20-plus small strokes that Saturday and Sunday, his daughter Sarah Harrington said.
He was quickly airlifted to Swedish Cherry Hill and underwent a procedure to put a stent in his artery.
“Sunday was a day of nightmares,” Harrington said. “Dad went from being able to talk to us to not being able to recall his name.”
Harrington noted that doctors found a large clot within his artery where there was narrowing. That narrowing was holding back the large clot but causing many little strokes as pieces of the clot passed through.
The surgeon at Swedish said the situation was life-and-death, Harrington said; physicians were able to remove the clot, and Willis had two stents placed in his neck.
The prognosis is good even as he is still at risk as his body heals, family members said.
On Thursday, Harrington and Willis’ wife, Polly Caughron-Willis, said Willis had improved significantly, to the point that he’s expected to be released and come home this week.
“Today (Thursday) he’s much, much better,” Caughron-Willis said.” (But) hasn’t had food yet.
“He said, ‘My neck hurts’; he really doesn’t remember he had surgery there.”
Harrington has a GoFundMe page at www.gofundme.com/f/support-mark-williss-emergency-medical-costs to help defray costs of the airlift, stays in Seattle and what’s expected to be significant costs with follow-up tests and treatments in the coming days, weeks and months.
She’s also collecting stories, words of encouragement and letters for a “giant get-well card” for her father; to send a note, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Willis was a longtime administrator at Sequim schools before he retired in 2020. Caughron-Willis worked for Sequim schools at the district office until 2017.
Willis battled prostate cancer; he had his prostate and some lymph nodes removed in 2015, family members said.
Then, when cancer returned in 2018, he underwent six weeks of radiation therapy followed by a surgery to remove some of his colon and lymph nodes.
“The radiation therapy and surgeries at that time were all very difficult but ultimately successful in beating cancer,” Harrington wrote on the GoFundMe page.
Caughron-Willis said her husband can expect plenty of physical, occupational and speech therapy over the next several weeks — particularly the speech therapy — but a good sign was that doctors, who had told the family they expected to have Willis on their campus for several weeks, were releasing him within days.
Caughron-Willis said that, because of COVID-prevention measures, she and other family members were unable to be with Willis.
That separation was particularly harrowing after Willis developed some bleeding issues in the afternoon on Tuesday. The bleeding and cramping eventually abated; Harrington said physicians later found it was linked to radiation therapy he received three years ago for his prostate cancer. The inflammation won’t require surgery, she said.
“They removed him from the ICU (intensive care unit) because they needed the bed,” Caughron-Willis said. “He’s had excellent care there … (but it’s an) eerie scene in the hospital; they don’t want people in there. You can’t be your loved one’s advocate.
“This was a horrifying experience.”
Harrington said the cost of getting her father where he needed to be — in addition to MRIs, hospital stays, therapy and more — is expensive, hence the GoFundMe. As of Monday, the effort had raised more than $19,600 of the $25,000 goal.
“No one likes to ask for help, but at this time, this is what people could do,” she said.
Caughron-Willis said her husband particularly enjoys one part of his retirement: spending time with grandchildren, Harrington’s Bryn and Hudson.
“He spends every day with them,” Caughron-Willis said.
“This is going to get better, and Mark is going to get better.”
Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at email@example.com.