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Running Mom: Young Patients Inspire Nurse to Pursue Marathons

Christina Wills, DNP, was initially inspired by her patients to participate in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. She has done the race for 10 consecutive years.

As a young nurse at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Christina Wills, DNP, began running to support her patients in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend. She never really expected to become a dedicated marathon runner.

“My commitment to my patients and their families sparked my love for running. The most recent St. Jude Memphis Marathon marked my 10th consecutive year participating in the weekend,” said Dr. Wills, 35, now an assistant professor in UT Health Science Center’s College of Nursing. “I have never missed a year, including waddling to the finish line 40-weeks pregnant to complete a 5K I signed up for.”

What Dr. Wills didn’t know when she started running was that her hobby would become a practice that has expanded her community and fueled her role as a full-time faculty member and busy mother of four boys ages 5 and younger. 

“Morning workouts help fill my cup before the daily demands start. I am able to prioritize time to reflect and practice gratitude.  It has been a game-changer that has honestly turned me into a better mom, friend, wife, and pediatric nurse practitioner,” she said. “Our four boys have been my biggest motivator to be the best version of myself.” She and her husband, Michael, are parents to Wallace, 5, Jack, 3, and Louis and Lawson, 16 months.

Just 15 months after giving birth to the twins, Dr. Wills ran the Mississippi River Run Marathon with a Boston Marathon-qualifying time. Her overall time was 3:29, averaging an 8-minute mile; the Boston qualifying time for a woman her age is 3:35. She plans to apply to participate in the 2025 Boston Marathon. Dr. Wills credits her husband Michael for helping her carve out time and prioritize self-care. “There is no way I could do any of it without him,” she said.

She also runs with a group of mothers in East Memphis who help hold one another accountable. “During training seasons, some of us start at 4:30 am. We have formed lifelong friendships and supported each other during the peaks and valleys of life.” 

For those who would like to start running but aren’t sure how to begin, Dr. Wills says, “just get out there! You must start somewhere – a mile or half a mile. Embrace the run-walk method. Set short, attainable goals, and never break a promise you have made to yourself.” She notes that speed and distance are not the most important things. Her time during the St. Jude 5K, when she was 40 weeks pregnant, was 22 minutes per mile.

In her 10 St. Jude weekends, Dr. Wills has run four full marathons, three half marathons, two 10Ks, and one 5K. She worked on the hematology/oncology floor at St. Jude from 2012 to 2017, caring primarily for hematology, leukemia, and lymphoma patients. “I have had the honor of caring for some of the most courageous children receiving care at St. Jude.” She still works one day each week at St. Jude in the hematology clinic where children with non-malignant blood disorders such as sickle cell disease are treated.

Dr. Wills is an alumna of the college’s Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, where she now teaches, specializing in pediatric primary care. She also serves as an instructor in the college’s ground-breaking Sickle Cell Disease Boot Camp for Nursing Excellence. Piloted in 2022, the boot camp now takes place twice a year and educates nurses on best practices in treatment. The free boot camp has educated 77 nurses from 27 states and six countries.

Professor Sara Day, PhD, RN, leads the boot camp effort for the College of Nursing. It is a collaboration with St. Jude. “She is dedicated to improving the quality of care for children and teens with sickle cell disease. Her passion and depth of knowledge are evident in her teaching and clinical care,” Dr. Day said.

Dr. Wills’ passion for running helps her keep up with her four little boys ages 5 and under. She says running helps her be the best version of herself.

Although she is clearly driven to achieve goals in both her personal and professional life, Dr. Wills said her family remains her top priority.

When she returned home from running her most recent Mississippi marathon, she said, “the boys asked if we were going to the zoo or to the park.”

They went to the park. “We played basketball and rode scooters,” she said. “Parenting is far from easy, but being a mom is the greatest honor I have been given. It is a blessing I pray to never take for granted.”