Heroes in our midst

Nicolas Walsh, M.D.
Nicolas Walsh, M.D.

Members of the United States Navy’s Sea, Air and Land teams–better known as SEALs–are almost mythical beings. They are able to thrive in situations where others could barely function. They are the group the United States military calls in when the margin for error is nonexistent.

So it is perhaps no surprise that the final leg of their training has become popularly known as “Hell Week.”

Nicolas Walsh, M.D.
Nicolas Walsh, M.D.

“You’re wet and awake for an entire week,” explained Dr. Nicolas Walsh. “You’re basically always in frigid water, and asked to perform at peak levels without fail. Almost everyone who is going to quit, drops out that week.”

In fact, by the end of Hell Week, almost 75 percent of each class of candidates has withdrawn. “We started with 217 individuals, all fully able to complete this training,” Dr. Walsh recalled. “Only 56 finished.”

Dr. Walsh was one of the 56. He served two tours in Vietnam, from 1970 to 1972, as a part of SEAL Team One, and became highly decorated for his service. Dr. Walsh earned two Silver Stars for heroism and a pair of Bronze Stars–among many other commendations.

Navy SEALs in Vietnam packed light, carrying only ammunition and essential weaponry as they became ghosts, working as strike forces to gather – and act upon – intelligence.

Out of necessity, SEALs learn to critically analyze and decisively respond to ever-changing environments and situations. This requires one to think outside the box and adapt, before then taking appropriate action.

That training has served Dr. Walsh well throughout his career as a leader in academic medicine. He has served as professor and chairman of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the UT Health Science Center for 26 years.

“SEAL training is one of the hardest challenges one can face both physically and mentally,” Dr. Walsh said. “But not everyone is a SEAL. So the experience personally is, essentially, no different than one faced by somebody else going through the most difficult trial of their own life. It’s very easy for me to have a great deal of empathy for our patients, whether they’re enduring a spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, a stroke, or any other kind of physical challenge. Fortunately, we’re able to help a great many people.”


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