Locum Tenens Provider Spotlight: Success in Medicine Against All Odds

In her work with Consilium, Denise Willis currently sees patients at a correctional facility in Virginia. Throughout her career, she also has provided care in settings that include rural health, family medicine, urgent care, occupational medicine, internal medicine, geriatrics, behavioral health, and pharmacy.

If you were to enumerate the challenges on the path to becoming a pharmacist, academic lecturer, and physician assistant, chances are that list would not include half the obstacles faced by Denise Willis, Consilium physician assistant and poster child for persistence and determination.

“I never thought I would make it this far, to be quite honest,” Willis said. “I always wanted to succeed, and I was willing to do whatever that required, but there were many times it seemed impossible despite my dedication. Sometimes I still can’t believe I made it through.”

Willis, who was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, said she had been captivated by the study of medicine from the time she was a young girl. Some of her earliest memories consist of walking down to the corner drugstore with her father, where a pharmacist everyone called “Doc” would let her come behind the counter and try pronouncing the names of the medications in stock.

“As a child, I read everything I could get my hands on,” Willis said. “My mother used to laugh at me for it, because it didn’t matter if it was the back of a bottle of detergent—I was going to read it. Afterward, I would write down the names of the ingredients and try to figure out what each one was and what it did.”

Though the earliest years of her childhood were marked by some degree of normalcy, that had changed in a big way by the time she turned 7. Her parents split up and her mother fell very ill, leaving a very young Willis with the responsibility of caring for her younger siblings. When she was 12 years old, her mother succumbed to her drawn-out illness—which turned out to be cancer—and Willis was placed in the foster care system.

“It was difficult, and I do think my childhood experiences have a lot to do with my chosen career path,” Willis said. “I had that innate curiosity and passion for medicine, yes, but I also saw up close what it means to have—or not have—adequate medical care. My youngest brother had a lot of health problems too, and those sorts of experiences just stick with you for the rest of your life.”

Despite her circumstances, Willis—determined to succeed—excelled in school. She completed college and then attended the Temple University School of Pharmacy in Philadelphia, where she was able to follow in the footsteps of “Doc,” who had first sparked her interest in pharmacy all those years ago. Bringing full circle those formative walks down to Doc’s clinic, as a young adult Willis also reconnected with her father, who revealed that Willis had a number of relatives whom she had neither met nor heard of as a child. Willis and her husband—who were already considering a move further south—met the long-lost Virginia branch of her family and soon decided that was exactly where they wanted to be for the foreseeable future.

“It’s crazy thinking about it now, but I truly didn’t have a reliable support system until I got married to my husband,” Willis said. “Having my father back in my life has made such a difference, and it has been just wonderful to suddenly have family by my side.”

Willis moved to Virginia in 1989, and since then has worked as a pharmacist, pharmacy supervisor, in-house department educator, preceptor for pharmacy and pharmacy tech students, and as a lecturer at the junior college and university levels.

“I even had my own pharmacy for a while back in the ‘90s, which had always been a dream of mine,” Willis said. “It only lasted a few years—up until a chain pharmacy opened right across from us—but I am proud that I was able to achieve that goal even if it wasn’t in the cards long-term.”

By the late ‘90s, Willis had decided that she was just not passionate about pharmacy the way she had been before—she wanted the opportunity to better connect with patients and have a direct hand in their care. To best achieve her ideal patient-provider relationship, she set her sights on becoming a physician assistant. She enrolled in the Master of Physician Assistant (MPA) Program at Eastern Virginia Medical School, a program that aligned with her belief in providing inclusive, patient-centered care and fostering strong clinical and community partnerships.

When asked about her most memorable moment as a PA, Willis said there is one patient in particular who she could never forget. He was working as a custodian, and upon their meeting it was visibly clear to her that something was very, very wrong.

“This gentleman had severe, severe jaundice, and it was obvious even with his dark complexion,” Willis said. “His eyes, lips, fingertips, overall hue…all of it was just ‘off.’ I asked him to please, please see a doctor as soon as possible.”

Instead, the man came to see Willis, who he trusted would help him get the care he needed. He said he had seen a physician several months prior who—despite clear lab results—had not provided any answers or assistance. The patient’s gamma-glutamyl transpeptidase (GGT)—a chemical that might normally be around 60 units per liter (U/L)—was measured at more than 2,000 U/L. Lo and behold, further testing soon determined that the man had cancer.

“I could not believe that it took so long for him to receive treatment,” Willis said. “But because he agreed to come in, he lived much longer than he would have otherwise. I actually discovered that one day several years later when he recognized me at a local grocery store and ran up to thank me. He looked just wonderful, and I’ll never forget the stark difference compared to the first time I saw him.”

Given her vast experience in an array of clinical settings, Willis had been familiar with locum tenens for a number of years, even working an agency assignment as a pharmacist at a Minnesota Indian Health Services facility. Despite positive prior experiences in temporary pharmacy assignments, she was initially wary of taking on locum tenens assignments as a physician assistant.

“If I had to give one piece of advice to other providers who are on the fence about doing locums, I would say to just try it,” Willis said. “It’s not a permanent move if you don’t want it to be, so why not? I hesitated at first because I didn’t know what the experience would be like as a PA—I wish I had made this leap much earlier.”

Despite her lifelong love for learning (and resulting tendency to eagerly take on new opportunities), Willis says she is at a point in her life where she would like to “slow down a little bit,” which is part of why she appreciates the ability to set her own schedule. Willis has partnered with Consilium since 2014, and she specifies flexibility and her working relationship with Landon Webb, her account manager, as reasons she plans to stay with Consilium long-term.

“I stay with Consilium not only because I believe in the company mission, but also because I have truly been enriched by my interactions with everyone I have spoken to,” Willis said. “I know I can always call Landon with anything I might need (even after-hours!), and that’s a huge comfort. It’s just easy with Consilium, and I will never forget the care they showed me after my accident this year.”

In June of 2017, just before starting another assignment with Consilium, Willis had been in a car wreck that resulted in a severe concussion and left her unable to work for nearly two months. She cites the care shown by Consilium team members as a source of support during a very difficult time, serving as further confirmation that she is exactly where she was meant to be.

“They never pressured me to come back before I was ready, and I knew that their concern was for me as a person, not just as a provider,” Willis said. “They worried about me, they called to check on me, and they prayed for me. All of that really meant something to me. When I was ready to work, I called Landon and told him it was time to give it a try, and we jumped right back in where we had left off. My work begins with patient care, and I truly believe that at Consilium, they start with care for their providers. I plan to stay with Consilium for a long, long time.”

Interested in putting your medical expertise to work with Consilium, or in finding quality medical providers to cover shifts at your facility?

More from Consilium’s partnering locum tenens providers:

What it’s Like to Work at Consilium Staffing: The Proof is in the Pizza

If there’s anything we advocate in our approach to company culture, it’s the concept of “work hard, play hard.” Here’s how it looked to be part of the Consilium team in Q3 2017:

Fourth of July

 

 

 

Each year, we celebrate the Fourth of July with a company potluck (with barbecue provided by Consilium) and informal patriotic attire, during which time we all look a bit like Captain America for the day.

Representing Consilium From California to Louisiana

We had quite the number of jet-setters this summer: during Q3, we sent representatives to San Diego, San Antonio, and New Orleans to represent Consilium at annual conventions that included the NACHC Community Health Institute, Psych Congress, and AAFP Family Medicine Experience.

(Even better, we acquired this stunning portrait of Vice President of National Accounts Hamilton Doty and Regional Vice President of Client Sales Billy Bowden. This might just end up on our Christmas cards.)

Q3 WIN Celebrations

Consilium holds a monthly WIN meeting to recognize individual, team, and company milestones, of which there were many this quarter!

Congratulations to our nine team members who earned promotions in Q3:

  • Amber Adkins— Senior Recruiting Consultant, Primary Care North
  • Brandy Cook—Senior Client Consultant, Primary Care Southwest
  • Shadley Hawkins—Director of Account Management, Behavioral Health South
  • Charlotte Kirkpatrick—Senior Corporate Recruiter
  • Kade Massingill—Senior Client Consultant, Behavioral Health South
  • Courtney Pryor—Corporate Recruiter
  • Keeley Puicon—Senior Recruiting Consultant, Behavioral Health South
  • Allie Purnell—Senior Account Manager, Primary Care Midwest
  • Ryan Saunders—IT Support Technician

Kicking Labor Day Weekend Off Right

After a record-breaking month in August, company partners announced a surprise early release on Friday, September 1st, to jump-start the Labor Day weekend. To keep productivity—and towers of empty pizza boxes—high, we also were treated to a company-wide pizza party for lunch on Thursday afternoon (rumors abound of team eating contests, but our lips are sealed).

Business Casual Attire—What NOT to Do

We embrace a business casual dress code at Consilium. In a nutshell, that means sharp enough to present as professionals and casual enough that we don’t feel like we’re attending an 8-5 Easter Sunday service. On Fridays, however, we get to wear jeans—just make sure not to emulate director of recruiting Ricky “Two-Shoes” Moses:

National Locum Tenens Week

August 14-18, 2017, marked the first ever National Locum Tenens Week, which recognizes the contributions of temporary healthcare providers across the nation. For our participation in the event, we took to the streets of downtown Dallas to interview passerby on their knowledge of locum tenens.

Locum Tenens Week, Day 1: What IS Locum Tenens, Anyway?

Never heard of locum tenens? You aren’t alone!

Locum Tenens Week, Day 3: “Wait, What Did You Say?”

It’s “locum tenens” as you’ve never heard it before (seriously, they pulled out all the phonetic stops).

Locum Tenens Week, Day 5: The Future of Locum Tenens

(Disclaimer: contrary to what our entertaining volunteer Grant thinks, locum tenens has absolutely nothing to do with alcoholic beverages.)

Women in Leadership

Consilium embraces a company commitment to invest in the personal and professional growth of each team member. In Q3, that included a presentation by founding partner and regional vice president Amy Gentile, who spoke on her journey to Consilium, some of the realities of being a woman in business, and how the company helps support Consilium women as they seek to advance in their careers.

Consilium Cares

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which caused unprecedented destruction right down I-45, Consilium Cares was able to gather four large boxes (plus one small box stuffed full of baby supplies) of donation items from Consilium team members. A huge “thank you” goes out to everyone who pitched in to help, on behalf of your Consilium Cares team!

Pictured: some of the donations collected by Consilium Cares on Day Two of our drive, including baby diapers, dog and cat food, non-perishable food items, and socks for children and adults

Consilium in the News

Physicians Practice

Congratulations to Dr. Days, one of our family medicine physicians, whose advice was featured in this Physicians Practice piece on part-time opportunities in medicine.

VoyageDallas Magazine

Want to learn more about the Consilium story? Check out our interview in VoyageDallas Magazine, which features founding partner and EVP Matt Baade on his own journey to Consilium.

 

Interested in joining our team? Check out our current career opportunities