Ballet Dancer Turns Her Talents to the Art of Medicine
Carrie Walsh can still remember the feeling of stepping offstage and walking out of the opera house, the applause and standing ovations providing an emotional high.
“Your heart feels this big,” she says, holding her hands out wide. “Like you did something special today!”
It’s the same feeling she now gets when walking out of the emergency room. The professional ballerina-turned-medical student has taken her love for dance and transformed it into a devotion to caring for patients.
“You feel this amazing passion,” explains the fourth-year SKMC student, comparing the art to the science. “There’s a feeling at the end of a ballet performance when you’ve given everything in your heart and soul. Your whole body is so tired, but there is the adrenaline that keeps you going. Medicine is like that; it’s not just what you do, it becomes who you are.”
This second act as a physician is a return to a childhood dream for Walsh. Growing up on the tiny island of Jersey, a British crown dependency in the English Channel just a few miles off the coast of Normandy, France, she always knew she wanted to be a doctor.
As a teenager, one of her best friends was diagnosed with cancer at age 13. Walsh saw how the condition consumed her teenage friend’s whole life with chemo, surgery, radiation, and illness, before she succumbed to the disease at age 19. “It brought home, pretty early on, how important health is,” she says. “I wanted to be able to help people when they really needed it.”
From a young age, Walsh excelled in school, and along with a close friend who also was interested in medicine, studied and talked and dreamed about all the things their future would bring. But the dream of practicing medicine was put on hold when she fell in love with the movement, the music, the art, the physicality of ballet.
Walsh began her ballet studies a little later in life than most dancers—she took her first lessons at age 13. A few years later, when a friend told her she could move to England and do ballet all day, every day at a school for dance, Walsh was thrilled. She decided to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London.
It never occurred to her that she didn’t stand a chance.
This Passion That You Have
Although Walsh came to ballet late in life, she describes it as “this passion that you have.” That passion propelled her from the banks of Jersey to the audition at the Royal Ballet School in London.
Young dancers from all over the globe seeking admission to the world’s premier ballet schools—Royal accepts 12 girls and 12 boys each year—typically take classes and polish technique for 10 or more years before applying. Walsh had been going to ballet classes for only two years, but her teachers had seen plenty of raw talent and lots of determination, and steered her into extra lessons.
“I had barely started pointe work,” Walsh says. She didn’t have the other applicants’ depth of experience, but what she understood—and threw herself into—was the sheer bliss of dancing.
At the audition, Walsh was assigned to a barre with students from the lower school, called White Lodge, who were hoping to move up. “I think they put me there because they knew I had come to ballet late and was behind. At least this way I could follow people who knew what they were doing,” Walsh says. “I saw how amazing everyone was, how their technique was so schooled. I wasn’t anywhere near their level, but I put on my pointe shoes and did what I could. I was smiling and dancing and had so much fun.”
“This was where I needed to be,” she says. “This was where I felt at home.”
Not long after the audition, she received a letter of acceptance and started four years of rigorous ballet training. Her parents, skeptical of her choice to be a professional dancer, were disappointed that she was putting aside her education and her long-held aspiration to be a doctor. But Walsh’s artistic sensibilities were guided by a pragmatic calculation.
“I have to do ballet first,” she told them as she left for Royal, “because you have to do it when you’re young. After I retire, I can go back to school and become a doctor.”
At the Royal Ballet School, students trained and drilled and danced for nine hours each day, six days a week. Because she was behind, Walsh was offered evening classes by the director or would practice on her own. Some evenings, the students would cross the “Bridge of Aspiration,” a pedestrian walkway to the opera house, where the Royal Ballet Company performed. They would either be part of the ballet performance or “cover,” standing in the background to observe the numerous places and parts in case a dancer were to become ill or injured.
Following graduation, Walsh became a professional ballet dancer for eight years, performing across Europe and competing against hundreds of dancers to land spots in companies such as the Royal Danish Ballet and Corella Ballet in Madrid.
“She used to stay after a long day of work, trying steps she thought were not yet perfect, and came on free days to practice by herself,” says Angel Corella, the former director of the Corella Ballet, and the current artistic director for the Pennsylvania Ballet. “She had beautiful, classical technique and a perfect physique for dance, but what convinced me most was the sparkle in her eyes every time she would do an exercise.”
While in Spain dancing her favorite ballet, La Bayadère, Walsh tore ligaments in her foot, dislocated her ankle, and broke off part of a bone. Still, she danced through the pain when offered a soloist role in Swan Lake with the Ballet de le’Opéra National de Bordeaux in France.
“I was taking 800 milligrams of ibuprofen three times a day and slamming my foot against the floor, so I’d be used to the pain and wouldn’t grimace when I went on stage,” she says. “That’s when I started to realize how fragile a career in ballet is.”
After 24 performances, Walsh was forced to take six months to recover. While doing rehab, she started looking at her high school biology books and reflecting on her original dream of being a doctor. The desire was still alive, but she wasn’t ready to give up ballet just yet. Once healed, she joined the Norwegian National Ballet in Oslo and danced for three more years. But her time was ticking down, and she was looking for the bridge of aspiration that crossed from stage to clinic.
Making the Grand Jeté
With no science background, Walsh couldn’t begin medical studies in England. While on holiday in New York City, she toured Columbia University and decided to apply to its undergraduate program in neuroscience. With the same mix of naiveté and fervor, she signed up to take the SATs at Oslo University on the same day she was scheduled to appear in a 2 p.m. performance of Swan Lake.
“I honestly didn’t do much studying because I thought it was more an intelligence test,” she says. She also didn’t realize the SAT was a four-hour exam, and finished just one hour before she had to be on stage. “I pegged it out of the university and jumped onto the tram to the opera house.”
The transition from professional ballet dancer to student—from the intense physical activity of a dance ensemble to the sedentary, solitary work of study—was hard. After being away from academic pursuits for a decade, Walsh again felt like she was behind the younger students, first at Columbia and then at SKMC. Many have known only a life of study and learning, and they seemed more prepared and intellectually nimble, so she has had to work twice as hard to catch up.
“If I hadn’t suddenly decided to become a ballet dancer, I’d be a fully qualified doctor now and would probably have had a much easier life,” remarks Walsh, who is planning on a career in emergency medicine. “But would I change it? No, not for the world. I loved my job. It was the reason I woke up every morning. There was not one moment when I wanted to do anything else.”
In this way, Walsh says she realizes that ballet and medicine—although they seem very different—are quite similar.
“The life lessons and qualities that I needed to be successful in ballet have helped with my medical schooling. There’s an understanding that there is a sacrifice you have to make—you have to stay in, and study, and practice,” she says. “The drive and dedication are the same; the passion is the same.”
During medical school she has spent large blocks of time reading books, listening to lectures, and taking tests to build up the technical knowledge to help patients. But it was when she started clinical rotations that something seemed to shift. She found herself moving to a different kind of music that had long been dormant.
“Being a human being and developing a relationship with somebody, I think that’s pretty special,” she says. It’s the art Walsh had been looking for: working face to face with a patient, establishing rapport, and building trust so she could bring her medical knowledge and technique to helping someone in need. In working with people, she found more than the technical skill—she found the passion.
“When I introduced myself, I used to say, ‘I was a professional ballet dancer,’” she explains. “Now when I introduce myself, I say, ‘I’m a medical student.’ This is actually what I’m going to do every day. I’ve made that transition without even realizing it.”
She says her emotional high no longer comes from applause and standing ovations, but from knowing she is going to make a difference in someone’s life.
This is where she needs to be now. This is where she feels at home.