Mark Van Mersbergen made his first gift to Virginia Mason Franciscan Health (VMFH) in 2020. The gift represented a very special thank you to the doctors and nurses he cannot remember for the days and weeks they spent caring for him while he fought for his life against COVID-19.
A fifth-generation farmer in Lynden, WA, Mark rarely makes it to Seattle. But when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 in April 2020, he was airlifted to Virginia Mason Medical Center (VMMC).
“I only had a 10 percent chance of living. I was in a coma for 20 days and had a nurse dedicated to caring just for me, 24 hours every day. Three years later, this ornery old farmer still gets very emotional thinking about the incredible people who saved my life,” Mark says.
In telling his story, Mark attributes his survival to three things – his faith, the care he received at VMMC, and his family.
Mark’s lifelong faith in God and belief in the power of prayer has helped him get through many hardships over the years, but none were as significant or devastating as COVID-19. Hundreds of people in Mark’s community, and across the world, were praying for him and his family as he struggled to beat the virus.
“The second reason I’m living today is the nurses and doctors at Virginia Mason, whose intelligence and medical knowledge combined with their harmony in care, are beyond anything I could have imagined,” he said. “They gave my grandkids their grandpa back.”
And lastly, but certainly not least, Mark says his family’s dedication and belief in his strength to survive, was essential for his recovery.
A COVID-19 diagnosis with a heartbreaking beginning
Mark’s doctors and nurses believe he contracted COVID-19 from his dad, Marvin, who died from the virus at the beginning of April 2020. This was during the very early days of the pandemic when researchers knew very little about the virus and precautions like masks and social distancing weren't yet widely in place.
“We knew my dad had the virus, but we didn’t know much about it. I sat with him, so he wouldn’t be alone during his final days. Within a week of his passing, I was getting sick,” Mark said.
Soon, Mark ended up at the hospital in Bellingham. By that time, hospitals around the country were closing their doors to visitors and providers were wearing special personal protective equipment to minimize the spread.
As Mark's condition quickly worsened, he was running out of options. He was intubated and placed in a medically induced coma and his family and medical team began researching what else could be done. Less than 24 hours later, his doctors in Bellingham organized a transfer for Mark to VMMC. His family had agreed to place Mark in two clinical trials for treatments.
“Virginia Mason had a bed available and a series of the 10-day treatment left and they saved it for me. The good fortune of having that first doctor in Bellingham, which led to so many people working on getting this small-town farmer to Seattle, is something pretty amazing,” Mark says.
Lifesaving Care at Virginia Mason Medical Center
For the first two weeks, Mark’s health was monitored around the clock.
“I was so fragile; someone needed to be with me and watch every change in my status,” Mark says. “Having that level of care when the situation outside continues to get worse and worse is humbling.”
Back home, his children were mourning their grandpa and praying they would not lose another loved one. And although he couldn’t hear or see them, Mark’s nurses facilitated a daily Facetime call with his family.
“My kids told me that the nurses would tape their notes on the wall behind my bed and talk to me about the farm and my family,” Mark said. “As much as the medicine saved my life, I think the nurses' commitment to staying connected with my family and my life back home is a big reason why I’m here today.”
Eventually, Mark’s health made a turn for the better and he was slowly brought out of the coma. After 20 days, VMFH doctors sent him back to Bellingham. He spent the next few weeks in the hospital and a rehabilitation center there until he had enough strength to walk and do small tasks on his own.
Finally, Mark headed home to the house he grew up in and then raised his family in, which he has now passed to his daughter.
“Being at home and seeing my family after so much time away was one of the most memorable days of my life,” he says.
Happily Back Driving His Tractor
In the months after, Mark began to build his strength by doing what he knew – farming.
“Being back on the farm with my family was the best thing for my recovery,” says Mark, who is now back driving his tractor.
His kids made strict rules on what tasks he was allowed to take on until his doctor gave them the official green light.
That summer, they harvested blueberries and raspberries from over 200 acres of their farm. Mark took on the task of taking every field worker's temperature and monitoring health and safety protocols.
“One day, I’d like to do more than say thank you with a gift, I’d like to thank the care team at Virginia Mason in person,” Mark says. “I would thank them for keeping me safe and for their brilliant knowledge that saved this stubborn farmer’s life.”