Dr. James Willis is an emergency physician practicing in Brooklyn, NY. Being the Associate Residency Director, he enjoys diving into the educational aspect of his portfolio, while keeping up with his clinical work. For Dr. Willis, maintaining balance is key. So when he’s not working, he’s enjoying time with is family and playing with his son. Here’s how he stays healthy in EM!

  • Name: James Willis 
  • Location: SUNY Downstate and Kings County Hospital
  • Current job(s): Associate Residency Director of EM program, Assistant Clinical Dean of College of Medicine
  • One word that describes how you stay healthy: Balance
  • Primary behavior/activity for destressing: Playing with my son


What are the top 3 ways you keep healthy?

  1. Family. This is how I spend most of my free time. It is a priority and keeps me feeling healthy. My wife is an EM doc as well, which provides me with easy access to a consult or reassurance. My son is there for an easy smile and to keep me grounded. I have wonderful and supportive parents and in-laws, who I can count on for anything.
  2. Sleep. This is the most important ingredient for keeping a positive and healthy outlook. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but should be protected somehow. I am lucky to be someone who can fall asleep easily and sleep through mostly anything.
  3. Travel. Ideally, I enjoy traveling somewhere with some adventure, sight seeing, and an interesting culture. Some of my favorites have been South Africa, Peru, and Egypt.

What’s your ideal workout?

A bike ride in a park or to the beach with some weight training afterwards. My typical workout is usually chasing my kid and throwing him around, or working on a project at home.

Do you track your fitness? How?


How do you prepare for a night shift? How do you recover from one?

I work every Thursday and Friday night. On Thursday I usually stay up 24 hours. This allows me to have a whole day with my family and get things done. This also allows me to get a solid 8 hours of sleep on Friday because I am so tired.

Saturday morning I then sleep for 3 hours in the AM, and get to bed that night at my normal time. I think this really works because I never change my circadian rhythm. I have no problem transitioning every week.

How do you avoid getting “hangry” (angry due to hunger) on shift?

I’m a big believer in stepping out of the clinical area, every shift, ideally into the outside world. So when I feel the Hanger coming on, I will step out for 5-10 minutes to pick something up.

How do you ensure you are mentally in check?

In and out of the clinical area, I try to always remind myself that my residents and students are watching me. My primary goal is to be a good role model. I always like to view any craziness in the ED, with the perspective that their day is much worse than mine. Losing control or getting angry is our failure. We have to be the calm in the storm. Again, I have the advantage of having another EM doc at home who has to listen to me and usually will keep me in check. Occasionally there are arguments about patient management.

What are the biggest challenges you face in maintaining a longstanding career in EM? How do you address these challenges?

Clinical EM is tough and definitely leads to burnout because of the volume, the constant barrage of human suffering, and abuse of the system. It’s also my favorite part of what I do. I think the key in keeping the clinical work so enjoyable is to balance it with another passion. Mine is education. I love that my job offers me an almost dual career in teaching/mentoring residents and students while I still get to be a clinician. I think everyone needs to find that other thing, it doesn’t have to be career oriented, but there needs to be another passion or outlet.

On the other hand, academic work can pile up. Sometimes one of my biggest challenges is to make sure this does not creep too much into my home life. I think awareness of this problem helps the most, and keeping the balance in check is key.

Best advice you have received for maintaining health?

Learn to say no.

Who would you love for us to track down to answer these questions?

Rob Gore
Chaiya Laoteppitaks
Wendy Lau


Zafrina Poonja, MD

Zafrina Poonja, MD

Editor, How I Stay Healthy in EM series
Emergency Medicine Resident
University of Alberta
Zafrina Poonja, MD


Emergency Medicine Physician @ Vancouver General Hospital. Assistant Editor @ALiEMteam. Lover of travel, soccer, and boat shoes.