Dr. Philip Williams has spent more than a decade looking after community members’ health as a pediatrician at the Mariposa Community Health Center in Rio Rico. This year, he’s been an even more prominent face in Santa Cruz County, as one of the top physicians guiding the community through the COVID-19 crisis.
Williams has a “panel” of around 2,000 patients and, for most of his time in the local area, kept up a brisk schedule, seeing as many as 30 patients each day. And as one of a handful of pediatricians at the county’s most prominent health clinic, he’s found himself in many different roles.
Shortly before the pandemic hit, Williams had moved into an administrative job – which meant that he quickly took a leading role in MCHC’s pandemic response efforts last year.
He worked to set-up, first, COVID-19 testing and, later, vaccination programs. (“A lot, a lot, a lot, of logistics,” he said.)
He’s been out in the community doing public health education, going to schools and produce warehouses to talk about pandemic safety. And he’s been on the local airwaves, making appearances on radio stations and the Facebook channel We Love Nogales to talk about the pandemic in the local area.
Melisa Lunderville, an assistant superintendent at Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District, has worked with Williams for years on student health issues. She said he’s been helpful in guiding the district on a range of medical issues including, this year, several facets of its COVID-19 response.
“He’s just so approachable, and I aways leave feeling like I learned something and that he taught me it in a way that I can take it back and help other members of our school community understand what’s going on, especially with the pandemic,” Lunderville said.
Committed to the county
Williams is a big part of this community now, but he grew up far away. He’s originally from Indianapolis, earning his M.D. at Indiana University and then doing a pediatric residency in Chicago.
When he moved to Santa Cruz County, he wasn’t just trading the bitter midwest winter for the brutal Arizona summer – he was leaving a big-city medical environment for a small-town health clinic.
“Working in small towns, I think most physicians realize that your role isn’t that of a typical doctor,” he said. “We’re kind of a jack-of-all-trades – we cover the clinic, we cover the hospital, we deal with sick newborn babies, we deal with a whole lot of things that typical pediatricians don’t.”
Williams also knew he’d likely be called on to take a leadership role at his new job. That opportunity came, perhaps, quicker than expected – in his first six months, he ended up as the head of MCHC’s pediatrics department after other physicians departed.
With physician turnover a recurring issue in Nogales and Rio Rico, Lunderville said that Williams stands out in part because he’s one of a few doctors who have stayed and developed their careers in the local area.
“We’re really thankful that he’s a part of our community, and we’re thankful that he has made a commitment to be here for a while,” she said.
At the forefront
Williams now has a family in Rio Rico – three kids and his wife, who is a respiratory therapist at Holy Cross Hospital. Besides his job as a physician, he’s also pitched in in other areas of the community, like serving on the Rio Rico Fire District board.
Taking on a wide range of medical situations is what he signed up for when he moved to Santa Cruz County, but no one expects a global pandemic, so last year brought on unforeseen challenges.
Williams found himself juggling his usual duties with new necessities, trying to protect himself from infection, and scrambling to implement projects that suddenly seemed more urgent than before, like a telemedicine program to provide remote check-ups for students and teachers at local schools.
“How do you plan to vaccinate 50,000 residents? It’s not something I learned in medical school,” he said.
Now, with vaccination well underway, each passing week means that Williams and other local healthcare workers are finally getting closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. And he’s optimistic that we’ll emerge from the pandemic with a little more knowledge about disease prevention and basic safety measures.
If there’s one upside to a year that’s been difficult for doctors and everyone else, that might be it – more awareness of and appreciation for public health. As someone who’s been focused on keeping the community healthy for more than 10 years, Williams said that’s a good thing: “This has really put public health at the forefront.”