Jessica Willett '05 Has Followed Her Passion Around The Globe

Gunshot wounds, stabbings, gang related violence, and rush-hour car accidents are all common when working second shift in the emergency room (ER) at San Joaquin General Hospital in Stockton, California. So, too, is a very sick population, says emergency medicine physician Jessica K. Willett ’05. And with the area’s forest fires and related decline in air quality, she also finds herself frequently attending to respiratory emergencies like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

“Emergency medicine is one of those specialties that calls to people who have a certain type of personality,” says Willett. “Loving adrenalin, loving adventure, always being open to something new—because when you walk into work you have no idea what your day is going to look like—you really have to have the kind of personality that can handle that and thrive on it.”

But emergency medicine is a far cry from her original college major and career choice: music education.

A student–athlete (tennis and field hockey) from rural New Hampshire, Willett chose Ithaca because of the music department’s stellar reputation. However, after studying music education for two years, she decided it wasn’t the right fit. Believing she would be happier following her mother’s career path as an elementary school gym teacher and high school tennis coach, she switched her major to to physical education. But once Willett took her new major’s required anatomy and physiology course, taught by retired assistant professor Ron Schassburger, she began to contemplate becoming a doctor.

“Ron recognized my love for science and the human body,” she says. “He was the first person who ever brought up the possibility of medicine as a career for me. As a kid, I had never been exposed to the medical field, and if you don’t see it, you can’t envision yourself in that field. But Professor Schassburger put it into my head. That’s what started the process.”

After years of study and travel—as a medical student at St. George’s University in the Global Scholars Program, she studied in the West Indies, England, India, and Kenya and completed her clinical training years in New York City—Willett settled in California as an emergency medicine doctor.

Outside of the emergency room, Willett feeds her appetite for adventure and adrenalin by taking to the skies. Occasionally flying on the hospital helicopter, she joins local flight paramedics and nurses to stay up-to-date with what they’re doing in the pre-hospital setting. “It’s very useful for me in the ER knowing what everybody else is doing with patients before they arrive at the hospital,” she says.

Willett also volunteers for humanitarian medical trips with Flying Doctors of America. “It pulls in physicians and medical professionals from many different specialties and age groups, and you end up in an area that really needs medical care,” Willett says. “We all work together to help these people. It’s really great teamwork.”

This past summer she went to Bolivia and worked within the prison system, treating inmates. As any good daughter would do, she took her mother along. “It was a cool experience for both of us,” Willett says. “She finally got to see what I do and how much this field, these trips, and this work means to me. Coming from a family who is not medically oriented, that was important.”

After finding her passion in a roundabout way, Willett offers this advice to current IC students: “Don’t be afraid to change your mind or take a different path,” she says. “It’s important to let yourself evolve and figure out what you really love to do and what calls to you. Don’t be afraid to go with something different if you feel like that’s where you’re meant to go.”