Del Mar physician David Willms devotes his skills to saving lives as director of critical care

Dr. David Willms
Dr. David Willms

By Arthur Lightbourn


When he’s not hammering away at home improvement projects, gardening or writing poetry, you’ll find him trying to save lives in the intensive care units at the new Sharp Memorial Hospital in Kearny Mesa.

Dr. David Willms is director of critical care services at Sharp.

Last month, in recognition of his achievements, contributions and research over 22 years in critical care, a specialization that administers to and monitors patients whose conditions are often life-threatening, he was honored with induction as a Fellow of the American College of Critical Care Medicine.

We interviewed Dr. Willms at his home in Del Mar where he lives with his wife, former critical care nurse and now golf pro, Patty Atkins, and their sons.

The 54-year-old physician is 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, with hazel eyes, and sandy brown hair graying at the temples. He speaks with a hint of a Texas drawl.

And why not?

Willms was born in Big Spring, Texas, while his father served as a pilot stationed at a nearby Air Force base. The family later moved to Lockhart, Texas, outside of Austin, where his father took up farming. Willms was the eldest of two brothers and a sister.

He developed an early interest in science and in high school decided he wanted to be in some field of science where he could be of help to people. “And medicine fit the bill for that,” he said.

As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, he earned a B.A. in psychology, graduating in 1978 with honors.

Four years later, he earned his medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, followed by an internship and residencies in internal medicine at the University of Texas Science Center in San Antonio, and a fellowship in pulmonary and critical care medicine at UCSD (1986-1989).

He joined Sharp Memorial in 1990, serving in various capacities until his appointment as director of critical care in 2002.

The new expanded 368-bed Sharp Memorial Hospital, called the Stephen Birch Healthcare Center, was completed in 2009. It has two state-of-the-art intensive care units (ICUs) with a total of 48 beds, “and we tend to run close to full at all times,” Willms said.

“It’s almost always a life-threatening situation,” he added. “It might be from trauma, a motor vehicle crash. It may be after major or complicated surgery. It may be after heart surgery. All patients after heart surgery go to the intensive-care unit.

“Or it might be a medical condition like pneumonia or respiratory failure or sepsis, severe infection. Any of those might get you transferred into the ICU.”

Sharp Memorial is home to San Diego’s largest emergency and trauma center and, as such, many of its trauma patients end up in intensive-care. Sharp is also renowned for heart surgeries and multi-organ transplantations.

Willms, in addition to being board certified in critical care, is also a board certified pulmonologist, so that much of what he does in the ICU involves treating respiratory problems.



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