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Pandemic gives former Michigan football player Steve Wilson 'greater sense of purpose'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Steve Wilson knew while he was a student at Lakeland High he wanted to become a doctor.

He went to Michigan where, while majoring in cellular and microbiology, was a walk-on quarterback and scout team mainstay who finished his career in 2012 at defensive back. Now, Wilson is in third year of a four-year “med-peds” residency, a combined internal medicine and pediatrics program at the University of Michigan Medical Center.

Steve Wilson is in his third year of a four-year combined internal medicine and pediatrics program at the University of Michigan Medical Center.

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the White Lake-native and his team of fellow residents quickly mobilized, many of them, like himself, moved from other services, to treat patients overflowing ICU units at UM Hospital and across the country.

Wilson has never wavered in his desire to become a doctor. This experience, though, reinforced why he chose this profession.

“During this sort of crisis during this pandemic I just felt almost like a greater sense of purpose,” Wilson told The Detroit News in a phone interview. “It was almost like, not to be cliche, but it was like a calling type of feeling. You really felt like you were needed. Not to say that I don't feel that way other days, but there are very, very sick people, sicker than usual. To feel like you were actually contributing to a bigger cause is pretty cool.”

He had been on vacation just before the COVID cases began to quickly rise. He had been reading about the virus, watching the news and hearing from other residents sharing their experiences. Wilson said he initially experienced some anxiety and concern about contracting the virus.

“I made my peace with that pretty early though,” said Wilson, who also works at the nearby VA hospital. “I was talking to one of my one of my best friends I went to medical school with (at Michigan) about this. This is what we signed up for. I understand the risks and you do the best you can to protect yourself and those around you, but at the end of the day, it's your job. It’s what you do, so you don't think about it.

“You hear stories about young people that have been infected and for some it got so bad that they ultimately die. It’s definitely scary to think about, and leading up to that initial week in the ICU, that’s part of that anxiety I was talking about. But once you're there, once you're in it, you just forget about it. I don't know how to describe it. You just need to go in the room, you put your PPE (personal protective equipment) on, you wash your hands, you throw your gloves on, you put your gown on, and you just do it.”

Steve Wilson started his Michigan career as a walk-on quarterback who played on the scout team.

Wilson was hands-on, going into rooms along with nurses and respiratory therapists. Being with COVID patients was eye-opening.

“These are definitely some of the sickest patients I've ever seen,” Wilson said, “which is saying something because we are a tertiary care center, big academic center, and we see a lot of sick patients.”

The reality of how brutal and unforgiving the virus can be was evident his first day in the intensive care unit.

“I was calling families telling them that their loved ones had passed,” Wilson said. “That was not easy. And even the daily conversations, we’d call families every single day to give them updates, because obviously nobody's allowed to be at the bedside. Those were not easy conversations to have.”

There also have been what he calls the “wins,” the patients who had been on ventilators who survived and finally were able to return home.

Wilson said he found from his experience and conversations with other physicians at different hospitals that no one is immune. Three major underlying issues that made many patients higher risk have been obesity, hypertension and diabetes. He has seen young patients as well as older patients affected by the virus.

“Young people definitely are affected, and the mid- to older-age population is disproportionately affected, (but) this virus doesn't discriminate,” he said. “So you think about your colleagues and your family and even yourself when you're seeing these patients, and that was a little bit of a shift away from what I'm used to. A lot of the patients didn't necessarily have the same sort of medical background that I'm used to seeing. Some of the patients I saw, I'm just like, ‘Man, this could so easily be my parents.’ It changes your perspective a little bit, so from that standpoint it was definitely a little bit scary.”

Steve Wilson finally got into a game as a fifth-year senior defensive back against UMass in 2012.

Wilson led Lakeland to a runner-up finish in districts as a senior quarterback, he ran track for three years and played basketball for a year before going to Michigan. He was on the Wolverines’ scout team, often underappreciated by those outside the game, but coaches and players know there’s no way they can prepare each week without it. He recorded a tackle against UMass and Iowa in 2012.

Playing football takes a certain selflessness and endurance. Wilson has leaned on that and his team sports background as he’s pursued his medical career. He spoke frequently about being part of a team of doctors and nurses and how his football experience has allowed him to dig deep when necessary.

“You're doing things that are super uncomfortable, but you draw on all those experiences,” he said. “Any time you're going through a little bit of adversity, you think back and you know you’re prepared for this. I'm not going to compare waking up at 5 a.m. for a workout to caring for a critical care patient. But you need to know what it's like to be uncomfortable so that when you get into those experiences, you need to make the uncomfortable, comfortable.”

Wilson said he has so many great memories from his time with Michigan’s football team under then-head coach Brady Hoke. The Sugar Bowl victory was a highlight, as was the first night game at Michigan Stadium against Notre Dame. And then there was Michigan’s annual banquet when Hoke introduced each senior, a story Wilson loves to tell.

“At that point, I hadn't heard back from UM yet about medical school, but I had heard back from Michigan State and they accepted me and he’s like, ‘Yeah, he found out he just got into med school,’ and everyone’s is like, ‘Oh, that's great,’” Wilson said, laughing. “I got a little applause, and then he goes, ‘Yeah, but he got into Michigan State,’ and then everyone just started booing me on stage at the football bust.”

Things are beginning to return to some sense of normalcy at the hospital. Wilson said perhaps down the road he will look back at this experience and grasp how involved he was in this pandemic.

“While I was in it, it just felt like I was going about my daily business, caring for patients just like I would any other time,” Wilson said. “Obviously taking a few more precautions before going into the rooms and keeping up with hand hygiene and all those little things, but it was just a very, very unique experience.

“I'm very proud of my residency program, all the residents, all the attending (physicians), everybody just working together. It was a very collaborative team approach and it was very cool to see how everybody was willing to stand up, volunteer, mobilize, and just get to work.”