News : 2010 : November

Dedicated M.D. often worked 28 days in row

The Miami Herald

Posted on Thu, Nov. 25, 2010

Having both lost siblings — and seen young people die as they trained during the early days of the AIDS epidemic — Drs. Cathy and George Willis pledged to experience as much of the world as possible while they could.

So for years they kept a grueling schedule at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine: 28 days straight on the job at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

The payoff was having 28 days straight days to travel, which meant roughing it in places like Nepal, China, Thailand, Africa, Ecuador and New Zealand.

But Catherine Josephine DiLeo Willis never stopped being a doctor, said her husband.

``If anybody was sick in a village, she’d be giving her antibiotics away. She went right into the huts.’‘

Four months ago, Cathy Willis learned that she had a rare, fast-moving cancer called carcinosarcoma. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy but died of the disease on Nov. 16.


Born on July 31, 1954, in Port Chester, N.Y., Willis was 56.

``They called her the Mother Teresa of Jackson Memorial Hospital,’‘ her husband said. ``She just gave and gave and gave. She always gave the patient a `five-year warranty.’ ‘’

Willis grew up in Fort Lauderdale and met her husband in the laboratory at Florida Atlantic University. They married in June 1978.

``I was researching plant/animal cell fusion; she was researching cancer-cell growth,’‘ said George Willis, who retired from medicine and makes underwater environmental videos.

``We waited to get married until we were accepted to same medical school. . . She was the brighter of the two of us.’‘

After graduating from UM’s medical school in 1982 and serving as chief resident in internal medicine at Jackson, Willis joined the medical school faculty, teaching in the Department of Medicine and the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health.

She was an attending physician in Jackson’s General Medicine Clinic and Urgent Care Center, and directed the hospital’s Family Medicine Adult In-Patient Unit.

``Most recently, she served as a hospitalist on the in-patient team for family medicine,’‘ a UM statement said.

For 25 years, Willis ``trained 800 to 1,000 family doctors how to take care of people in the hospital,’‘ said Dr. Arthur Fournier, Willis’ teacher and then colleague at UM/Jackson. ``She taught with loving care, and she was adored by everyone.’‘

She had high standards and took a ``tough love’‘ approach with residents, he added.

Being a family doctor was no excuse for not knowing everything about a patient’s condition, Willis taught.

``Teaching was her life, and she found her niche on the wards at Jackson,’‘ said Fournier, vice chairman of Family Medicine and Associate Dean for Community Health at UM. ``We’ve lost a great role model.’‘

A fitness devotee, ``Cathy would be doing this until she was 90,’‘ said Dr. Thomas Harrington, a colleague and friend. ``You’d say, `You want to go out for a beer,’ and she’d say, `No, I want to go run five miles.’ ‘’

For Willis, ``inadequate care was unacceptable,’‘ he said. ``She worked so hard with these [usually indigent] patients. She’d take it personally. . . She’d be there late and spend hours on patients’ social needs. . . She inspired the best doctors in that program.’‘

Dr. Behnam Djahed, director of Jackson’s Family Medicine In-patient Service, worked with Willis for 20 years. He said she chose the public hospital environment because ``finances don’t come between patients and their doctor.’‘

He praised her problem-solving abilities.

``She was very smart and tried to identify things that would have been missed by a lot of people. She would not give up easily, and she instilled this in all her students, that you turn every stone and look at everything to help the patient, regardless of how hopeless it seems.’‘

A nature lover, Willis nurtured a miniature Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden at her Pinecrest home, including a collection of 300 orchids.

She snorkeled and ``would free dive 50 feet to spear a fish,’‘ George Willis said.

His wife ``always brought her job home,’‘ he said. ``She was steadfast in making sure that everything was done to perfection.’‘


That included her own treatment.

``She was conducting rounds from her bed’‘ at South Miami Hospital. ``A team of doctors would come in and she’d be trying to teach them.’‘

In addition to her husband, Willis is survived by her mother, Mary DiLeo, of Port St. Lucie, and sister Carmela Ludwick of Virginia.

The family is establishing an educational library in Willis’s memory.