Erin Willis, M.D., Recognized by National MS Society for Pediatric Care

By Amy Widner

It’s safe to say that Erin Willis, M.D., did just that. Willis is the first and only pediatric neurologist in Arkansas specializing in the treatment of multiple sclerosis in children.

It’s a role she chose for herself while still in her residency at UAMS and its partner, Arkansas Children’s Hospital. And it’s a role she is now being recognized for on a national level.

Dr. Willis in group photo

From left, Danielle Morrison with the National MS Society; Erin Willis, M.D.; Debopam Samanta, Interim Section Head of Pediatric Neurology; and Gregory B. Sharp, M.D., chief medical officer at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

In March, Willis was named a Pediatric Partner in MS Care by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The designation recognizes a commitment to providing exceptional, coordinated MS care regardless of geography, disease progression and other disparities.

“When I was in training and saw a family with a child diagnosed with suspected MS, they were often traveling out of state to see a specialist,” Willis said. “Arkansas is a rural state, so these families often didn’t have the resources to travel for care. I just didn’t think it was fair, and I looked at everything we have at Children’s and UAMS and thought that these families should be served too. So I took that opportunity and I talked to my mentors and leaders and said, ‘This is what I want to do, this is where my passion is.’”

Dr. Willis and nurse

Willis, right, with the MS clinic nurse, Kara Christensen.

The neurology faculty helped Willis get the training she needed, including a visiting rotation in pediatric MS at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Today Willis sees patients in her MS Clinic at Arkansas Children’s. With the Partner in MS Care designation, she is now listed on the society’s website along with other MS experts from across the nation so that newly diagnosed families can quickly find the help they need from a trusted source. The only other Partner in MS Care in Arkansas is Robert “Lee” Archer, M.D., chairman of the Department of Neurology in the UAMS College of Medicine. He sees adult MS patients at UAMS and also helped train Willis.

Multiple sclerosis is an unpredictable, often disabling disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. Symptoms vary from person to person and range from numbness and tingling, to walking difficulties, fatigue, dizziness, pain, depression, blindness and paralysis. MS affects more than 2.3 million worldwide.

MS is typically diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50, with at least two to three times more women than men being diagnosed with the disease. Although less common in pediatrics, studies suggest that 2-5 percent of all people with MS have a history of symptom onset prior to age 18. However, doctors often miss this diagnosis as they are not expecting to see it in children.

Willis’ group of patients is small, but their treatment is vital.

“When you get the diagnosis, you need treatment early,” Willis said. “It will decrease attacks and decrease rates of cerebral atrophy and — ultimately — your progression to disability. So kids getting diagnosed but then waiting until adulthood to figure out their treatment — it’s just not acceptable.”

To qualify as a Partner in MS Care, Willis doesn’t just see patients in the clinic, she participates in MS education and advocates on behalf of affordable access to high-quality MS health care for everyone living with MS.

“I’ve had some amazing opportunities because of my work with MS and my involvement with the MS Society,” Willis said. “Earlier this year, I went to Washington, D.C., to talk to our congressmen about the fact that kids have MS too, and we need more funding for research to better understand how to help them, and they need better access to medications.”

In presenting Willis with the Partners in MS Care recognition at a reception in her honor, Danielle Morrison with the National MS Society called Willis a “jewel.” Her mentors at UAMS and Children’s couldn’t agree more.

“We are enormously proud,” Archer said. “This represents a lot of hard work on the part of Dr. Willis and recognizes what we have always known, that her care of these pediatric multiple sclerosis patients is equal to anyone in the country.”

Gregory B. Sharp, M.D., chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital, praised Willis for seeing the need and stepping in to fill it.

“She has not only provided specialized care, but new and unique therapies as well through participation in clinical trials for her patients,” said Sharp, who is also a professor of pediatrics and neurology at UAMS and holds the John H. Bornhofen, M.D., Endowed Chair in Child Neurology. “She is now being recognized for her hard work and devotion to her patients. This honor is only bestowed on individuals who are recognized to be experts in the field and provide quality care for patients with MS. Congratulations to Dr. Willis for achieving this status and honor.”

For Willis’ part, she’s glad she found her path, even if it is one less traveled by.

“I just love it. I’m just so passionate about MS,” Willis said. “If by providing care close to home we’re removing an obstacle to a child getting early treatment, it’s all worth it. It means the world to me.”