Jamie Wells, M.D., was eight years old when she decided she wanted to be a brain surgeon.
She followed her heart when she changed career paths, devoting herself to pediatrics.
Today, she listens to both her intellect and her spirit as director of medicine for the American Council on Science and Health, a New York-based nonprofit pro-science consumer advocacy organization. She also is a visiting fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum, an educational nonprofit focused on enhancing freedom, choices and opportunities.
“It’s important to exercise different muscles at different points in our career,” she says.
Flexibility and resourcefulness have long been part of her consciousness. When she was a girl growing up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, her grandparents lived with the family. She remembers doing calculus with her grandfather, who invented his own stabilizing devices to deal with his tremors.
“My grandfather was a true renaissance man who instilled a love of learning in me.”
In fourth grade, she became part of the first co-ed class at Penn Charter, a prestigious independent Quaker school in Philadelphia where she hoped to pursue her love of mathematics. Upon arrival, testing showed she scored at the ninth-grade level in math, so they created a unique class to accommodate her advanced skills.
Taking on challenges has been a natural part of her progression.
At Yale University, she was president of the Yale Science and Engineering Association. At Thomas Jefferson Medical School, she was president of Alpha Omega Alpha National Medical Honor Society.
A Change of Heart
Dr. Wells began her first residency in neurosurgery, living in New York City. Then, suddenly, 9/11 changed the world. She was transformed, too. Her home, near Ground Zero, was no longer a haven.
For a while, she debated giving up neurosurgery and going into public health. Then she accepted a pediatrics residency at St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she cared for a number of patients with cystic fibrosis.
“Choosing pediatrics involved making a decision where I used my heart instead of my head,” she says.
She thrived as a pediatrician, doing home visits and sharing her email and phone number with parents so they could stay in touch.
“When people trust you with their child, you really have a special relationship,” she says. “You become part of their lives.”
Pediatrics introduced her to a circle of women colleagues, a new experience in her career.
“Being in a male-dominated environment was the norm for me,” she says. “When I switched to pediatrics it was a whole new world.”
Petite and attractive, Dr. Wells still found that she was not always taken seriously. When she stepped forward to treat a sick passenger on a plane, the flight crew demanded she prove she was a physician. In a man-on-the-street interview in which pedestrians were asked to guess her profession, no one came up with the correct answer.
“The take home: you don’t have to look like a doctor to be one.”
As a mentor, she encourages others to approach obstacles with optimism rather than pessimism.
“You have to learn to take the emotion out of it,” she says. “You can channel things in ways that benefit you. Turning negatives into positives empowers you more. It allows you to see opportunity.”
And if you are knocked down, get back on your feet as soon as you can.
“Life is not easy. Everybody trips and falls,” she says. “The best thing we can do for ourselves is learn to get up quicker. Don’t stay stuck.”
Throughout her years as a pediatrician, she found medicine becoming more fragmented, “with an ever-widening gap between policy and medical practice.”
She was disquieted with a growing emphasis on high volume. She yearned to play a greater role in advocating for excellence.
And so it was time to shift her career path again.
“There’s limited time in this world. I function from a place of wanting to leave the world better than I found it.”
Shaping policy will enable her to impact far more patients than she could at the bedside.
“It took quitting medical practice for me to get a voice,” she says. “It’s a platform that helps me to be effective in terms of my reach.”