The family of a long-time 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’s Cherry Hill campus on Jan. 9, one day after entering the emergency room in Port Angeles.
Ailing 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 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 their 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 a life-and-death one, 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 Jan. 13, Harrington and Willis’ wife Polly Caughron-Willis said Willis had improved significantly, to the point that he was able to return home on Friday, Jan. 14.
Harrington has a GoFundMe page at 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 of follow-up tests and treatments in the coming days, weeks and months.
“While he is still experiencing bleeding and discomfort we (and his care team) believe we should be able to manage his care at home,” Harrington wrote last last week. “He has weeks of rest ahead and movie dates with my two daughters … The relief my Mom and I both felt when we were able to actually see my Dad and hug him was overwhelming. The last time my Mom saw Mark he was being loaded into a helicopter and neither of them knew what was to come. But thanks to his amazing surgical team, a whole lot of prayers, and my Dad’s strength he made (it) home!”
Harrington is also collecting stories, words of encouragement and letters for a “giant get well card” for her father; to send a note, email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Willis was a long-time administrator at Sequim schools before retiring in 2020. Caughron-Willis also 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, in 2018 when cancer returned, he underwent six weeks of radiation therapy in 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 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 on the afternoon on Jan. 11. 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 Thursday, the effort had raised more than $12,000 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.