Like so many medical students, Michael Walsh felt depleted and burned out at the end of his third year of medical school.
“I wasn’t viewing people as people anymore,” he says. “I was seeing people as diseases.”
So instead of muscling through into fourth year, Walsh took a two-year detour. He went to seminary school.
“You’re so busy in med school - there’s really not a lot of time to attend to your own spiritual side,” says Walsh, who came into his spiritual life in his undergrad years at CU Boulder.
Taking two years off between third and fourth years was unusual. Taking two years off to get a master’s degree in soul care from Denver Seminary was unheard of.
“Everyone wanted to take me out to lunch to have me explain what I was doing,” he says laughing. “I got some pretty strange responses - lots of raised eyebrows. But most people were really receptive. They were more intrigued than anything else. I don’t think they’d ever met anyone who’d done anything like that.”
Taking time away was the farthest thing from his mind when he entered med school.
“I was so excited to be in medical school that I went into it with a full head of steam,” he says. “After the Step 1 exam at the end of the second year, everyone said it would get easier. But that’s the illusion. I was always under the impression that once you jump this next hurdle, it’s all downhill. But the hurdle keeps moving farther off.
“Third year turned out to be much more difficult than I’d expected. I knew I needed to take some time to devote to my spiritual life. Logistically it seemed like the time to do it."
Walsh found Denver Seminary on the Internet, spent a day observing classes and knew he’d found a good fit.
At first he worried about staying in touch with medicine. “I told myself to keep up, keep reading, to see patients from time to time. The first semester I did that but then I was up to my ears in papers and writing and reading books.
“I forgot a lot of it. Six months before I returned I broke out the books. It paid off working so hard the first two years because it came back. “
It also gave him perspective on his career as a psychiatrist.
“Within two years, I will have forgotten almost everything I know about OB/GYN. It shows you that you don’t have to know everything. Medical students think you do, and up until then I thought that too. You actually think it’s a feasible goal. It’s nice to have that belief shattered.”
Returning may have been tough academically, but spiritually, psychologically and personally – he met his wife, Holly Jo, at seminary – Walsh, 32, has no regrets.
“My experience going into fourth year was completely opposite from some of my classmates. I felt that my soul was restored. Many of my fellow classmates were at a low point. They were burned out. I felt I had gotten a fresh set of legs. I had spent two years in depth on how to tend to my spiritual life.”
Interviewing for residency meant talking about religion.
“Most people don’t discuss their spiritual life in a job interview, but it’s such a dominant part of my resume that it’s fair game,” he says. “Some schools where I applied they were thrilled with the background.”
He’ll do his residency at the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls, though he isn’t sure how his seminary training will manifest in his practice.
“I understand the spiritual side of people – not many people in medicine have formal training in this area.”
Given his time in seminary, would he consider becoming a minister?
“No,” he says with finality. “I believe I am designed and built to be a physician.”