By Elisabeth Costanzo Stewart

No one enjoys a trip to the emergency room. Between the panicked haste to arrive, the dreaded wait to be seen, and the unknowns of what may be next, patients crave a calming, friendly presence to assure them that care is on the way. For many in this community, that message of comfort is delivered by a familiar face, Johnson City native James Distin, DO, an Emergency Medicine physician at United Health Services. After completing his residency at the Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira, NY, Dr. Distin proudly returned to Broome County to devote his career to caring for the community that raised him.

Born and raised in Johnson City, NY, his draw to medicine developed early in childhood, thanks to a combination of career exploration via his extended family, which was full of healthcare professionals, and through watching his beloved pediatrician, the late Dr. J. Roger Chatterton, in action.

Photo Credit: Matt Ebbers

As a high school student, James had a natural aptitude for the sciences, specifically biology. When Distin was 16, a chance encounter with Shiela Allen at a recruitment fair in the center of the Oakdale Mall connected him to the Union Volunteer Emergency Squad. He saw volunteering with the Squad as an opportunity to either reaffirm or retract his plans to enter the medical field. James quickly realized that he possessed the innate skill of maintaining clear composure when faced with trauma.

“I benefited from some great mentors on the ambulance who taught me everything from the basics of what to do and what to grab during each type of emergency, but most importantly, they taught me how to compartmentalize each situation and communicate through kind directions,” explained Distin. “Yelling and chaos never gets anything accomplished quicker.”

When it came to exploring his college options, James thought practically. Understanding that he would spend the following decade completing his undergraduate, graduate, and medical degrees, followed by a residency, Dr. Distin opted for the college that made the most sense academically and financially — SUNY Broome. By studying Liberal Arts and Sciences: Science: A.S. at SUNY Broome, Distin could live at home, maintain his full-time jobs at the Holiday Inn and Lourdes Hospital, and benefit from learning the fundamentals of biology and chemistry in small, attentive classes.

“I’ve sat in biology lecture halls with hundreds of students. It’s definitely not the most conducive learning environment, especially if you have questions,” Disitin said. “But it was very different at SUNY Broome. I can still vividly remember being in the class with Dr. Jen Musa. She made the material digestible, which is really critical in foundational courses. I also have the bonus memory of briefly losing consciousness while trying to take my own blood sample for one of her labs. Thankfully, I don’t think too many people noticed.” Biology Department Professor Dr. Jennifer Musa remembers “being both impressed with James’s enthusiasm and curiosity and inspired by his passion for learning and service.”

With an associate degree under his belt, Dr. Distin transferred to Binghamton University to complete his bachelor’s degree in cell molecular biology. While there, Associate Professor for Biological Sciences, Dr. Kathleen Horwath, noticed Distin’s work ethic and invited him to join her research team, both in the lab and as a teaching assistant in the classroom. Unable to pass up the offer to become a TA, which accompanied a tuition-free graduate degree, Dr. Disitin opted to stay at Binghamton University before embarking on medical school to complete his master’s degree in cell molecular genetics.

After earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees in the Southern Tier, Distin was ready to leave the nest for medical school. Drawn to the comprehensive nature of “whole person” patient care, James enrolled at Lincoln Memorial University’s DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harrogate, Tennessee. While most medical students are burdened with deciding what specialty to pursue, Distin had already confidently committed to making Emergency Medicine his life’s work in his teens.

“It is no surprise to learn that James is excelling in his career and continues to make a positive impact in the community.” Dr. Jennifer Musa Photo Credit: Matt Ebbers

“I love to solve puzzles, and a lot of emergency medicine is just that, solving health-related puzzles. I have to know a portion of everything, be an excellent listener, and triage care based on need and urgency,” Distin shared. “I always need to have a grasp on what’s going on in the ER as a whole because the difference between five to twenty minutes could mean a drastic change in a patient’s outcome.”

Inching his way home after finishing medical school, James completed his residency in emergency medicine at Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira, NY. Post-residency, he joined the United Health Services Emergency & Trauma Services team in 2020.

When he is not treating patients in the ER or mentoring future physicians as a Clinical Instructor in Emergency Medicine for Upstate Medical University (SUNY), Dr. Distin is spending his free time participating in high-energy activities like racing his Porsche with the Northeast Region Porsche Club of America and running his fireworks display business. A lover of travel, James never hesitates to hop on a plane for a quick international trip to decompress from a series of demanding shifts.

While some may question why Dr. Distin opted to return home to Broome County to establish his medical career instead of pursuing a position in a flashier city or hospital system, Dr. Distin never wavers in being truly honored to serve in his role.

“I actually consider it a career perk to be a healthcare provider in my home community. It’s so nice to care for patients that tell me that they worked with my grandfather or know my parents,” Dr. Distin reflected. “Working in the Southern Tier definitely makes my care more personal and fuels my responsibility to regularly continue my education so that I can provide the most progressive and highest quality care.”

Read more inspiring stories about SUNY Broome’s students, faculty, staff, and alumni via the digital edition of BROOME magazine!

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