Many Americans have been affected by the COVID-19 virus pandemic, by the loss of employment, the loneliness of being separated from everyday human contact or perhaps even falling ill to the virus or knowing someone who has fallen ill.
Lt. Col. Derrick Williams is no stranger to the hardships the virus has caused. As the chief nurse of the 801st Combat Support Hospital, Williams has chosen to take the fight directly to this elusive virus, even though it has taken an emotional toll on him and his family.
Williams is currently deployed as part of the Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force 801-2 and is in charge of 33 nurses and combat medics, as part of the Department of Defense’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is being led by U.S. Northern Command.
U.S. Army North, as U.S Northern Command’s Joint Force Land Component Command, continues the integration of medical capabilities in several locations around the country, while remaining flexible to rapidly respond to emerging needs as part of the Department of Defense’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The JFLCC employed or allocated 14 Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces, each consisting of 85 medical personnel, in several U.S. cities, including in Detroit.
Williams and his team of healthcare Soldiers are working directly with COVID-19 positive patients at the TCF Center in Detroit, Michigan. His team works eight-hour shifts around the clock to ensure that the proper care is given to each patient at the temporary regional care center that has been built in Downtown Detroit.
Though Williams’ unit was mobilized on April 4, 2020, he has been on the front lines battling COVID-19 from the beginning. Long before the call came in that he would be going on active duty, Williams was working with COVID-19 positive patients in his civilian career as an acute care nurse practitioner in a level two trauma center at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Because of his daily interaction with COVID-19 patients and to ensure the health of his family, Williams has had very little contact with his loved ones for months.
“In a normal world, I would have been there to see my grandson on his birthday”, said Williams, whose grandson recently turned two. “Working with COVID positive patients in the ER prevented that from happening. I sent him a birthday present from Amazon, and except for some photos I received, I didn’t get to see him play with it. I haven’t seen him since back in February.”
Williams isn’t the only member of his family who has had to make tough decisions during this crisis.
“My family is a family of healthcare workers”, said Williams.
His nephew-in-law is a nurse working with COVID-19 patients. While Williams’ niece was in the late stages of pregnancy in April, his nephew-in-law felt it was best to move out of the house to protect her health.
“During the final weeks of her pregnancy he decided to not go to work and stay in quarantine just so he would be able to see the birth,” said Williams. “Thankfully, the baby is healthy and my niece and nephew-in-law both tested negative for the virus. My sister has only met her new granddaughter via Skype.”
The hardest part for Williams has been the distance the virus has placed between him and his mother.
“I know that I will see my grandson soon. I know I will get to meet my grandniece as well, but this virus has left my mom completely alone,” said Williams, whose father passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in October 2018. “With this virus becoming a real threat and with social distancing, her grandkids and great-grandkids have not been able to visit her since early March.”
In 1997, Williams’ mother had a health complication that left her with memory problems, which he has noticed have gotten worse over the last few months. The lack of human interaction and inability for her to meet the new additions to the family have only compounded her loneliness and depression.
“My older brother will come and sit with mom on her front porch because he’s at fairly low risk for getting the virus. She stays on one end and he’ll sit 10 feet away. That’s been the only real contact to the outside world she’s had,” said Williams. “People are still making runs to the store for her, bringing her whatever she needs, with the exception of the hugs and kisses she normally receives. The phone calls continue, but most of the human contact has stopped. That takes a toll.”
Breaking the news to his mother that he wouldn’t be around for a while was especially difficult.
“In February when we started getting more information on the virus, I told mom I wouldn’t be back to see her until this was over. That was tough,” said Williams. “I normally stop in several times a week for a visit on my way to or from the hospital. That all had to stop.”
The stress on the family that the virus has caused is worsened by the fact that Williams has decided to keep his deployment confidential from his mother. Except for his wife, kids, siblings, and the Soldiers he’s serving with, no one knows he is here in Detroit.
“My mom has no idea that I have been called to active duty here for the COVID-19 response. When I was deployed in 2011, she didn’t handle it well,” said Williams. “Even though it was a relatively low risk mission, she thought I was walking directly into the fighting. When this deployment came up I had a long conversation with my siblings. We felt that mom would not fare well with the additional stress of this mobilization.”
Long hours spent treating patients, the responsibilities of the deployment, the stress of keeping this mission a secret from his mom and close friends. The missed birthdays and milestones. It is all a heavy weight to carry, and that weight is evident on Williams’ face as he fights to hold back tears.
That load seems to lighten, ever so briefly, with the thought of reuniting with his family.
“I don’t know if this is going to end anytime soon, but I’ll be having coffee with mom on her front porch just as soon as I can be there with her,” said Williams. “As for my grandson, I’ll probably head up and take him fishing and play with him on the beach.”
Until then, Williams knows that the mission here is worth the sacrifice.
“Definitely it’s worth it. Giving back. Everybody talks about their deployments and going overseas to help other countries, and we’ve done medical deployments to Central and South America”, said Williams. “It’s always great to see what we can do for those people and the gratitude that they have, but to stay here and do the same thing for the American people as a whole. It’s been truly gratifying.”
Williams lives in Ossian, Indiana, and he is currently deployed with the Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force 801-2 in support of the Department of Defense COVID-19 response. U.S. Northern Command, through U.S. Army North, remains committed to providing flexible Department of Defense support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the whole-of-nation COVID-19 response.