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.”
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