Quad Cities physician and UI grad Christine Walsh combined her interest in radiology—typically a “behind the scenes” role in medicine—with her passion for forming trusting, long-term relationships with patients.
Celine Robins
courtesy of Christine Walsh
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Christine Walsh, seen here with her family, moved to Bettendorf, Iowa, nearly 10 years ago to join Radiology Group PCSC and the Genesis Center for Breast Health. “Iowa is a great place to practice medicine,” Walsh says. “It’s collegial, the patients are kind and understanding, and people work together. Plus, it’s a good place to raise a family.”

Christine Walsh knew she wanted to be a physician when she was in the second grade.

“I loved science, I knew medicine was a challenging field, and I was up for the task,” says the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine graduate. “And since I always said I would do it since I was little, maybe I was a little stubborn, too.”

When Walsh was a teenager, her family encountered an obstacle that set her on the trajectory for the rest of her career. Her grandmother, Alicia, had been caring for her husband for years as he lived with Parkinson’s disease, and she didn’t have the time to keep up with her own health care. After his death, she made an appointment to get a lump in her breast assessed. The family soon learned it was cancer.

“She luckily had a good outcome due to early diagnosis and treatment,” Walsh says. “It showed me how important a quality evaluation is and how diagnosing cancer can be done in a thoughtful and reassuring way.”

Fast forward to 2014: Walsh moved to Bettendorf, Iowa, to join Radiology Group PCSC and the Genesis Center for Breast Health—the same facility where her grandmother Alicia received care for her breast cancer when Walsh was a teenager. Now, she serves as the center’s director of breast imaging.

“I have a lot of family in Iowa, so it was an obvious choice to stay here once we had our daughter,” Walsh says. “And Iowa is a great place to practice medicine. It’s collegial, the patients are kind and understanding, and people work together. Plus, it’s a good place to raise a family.”

Bucking the perception of ‘reserved radiologist’

After completing her undergraduate studies at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, Walsh began applying to medical schools—but her heart was set on training in the Carver College of Medicine.

“I knew it was a great school, and it was my home state school, so financially, that was a big draw,” she says. “I applied all over the country, but when I got accepted to Iowa, that was it!”

She would end up completing all her medical training at Iowa, from medical school through fellowship.

“I was in Iowa City for 10 years,” Walsh says. “I’ve been a Hawkeye since I was little, and I stayed true.”

The first two years of her medical education—when learning was focused on didactic lectures and exams rather than clinical experience—were especially challenging.

“I was truly in awe of all of my brilliant peers,” she says. “That was a wakeup. I thought, ‘This is the real deal.’”

She thought at the time that she would likely choose a residency in obstetrics and gynecology. But she was surprised to find, during a randomly assigned elective rotation in her third year of medical school, that she was fascinated by the field of radiology.

“I liked the wide variety of things we saw daily and knowing what an integral role radiology has in the care of the patient,” she says. “Almost every patient in the hospital gets some sort of imaging study, and what we say has a lot of impact on their care plan. And I loved interacting with other medical teams, like neurology, surgery, and oncology.”

“It’s rewarding to me to find somebody’s breast cancer while it’s very small and treatable. When that happens, I know, ultimately, I have made a difference in what the rest of their life is going to be like.”

Christine Walsh
Carver College of Medicine graduate

Despite her interest, she was initially unsure about pursuing a career in radiology because the specialty offers fewer direct patient encounters.

“I like to be social. Stereotypically, people think radiologists are reserved people sitting in dark rooms all day. I was like, ‘That is not me!’” she jokes. “But I tried other rotations, and I kept coming back to it.”

She found a way to marry her interest in radiology with her desire to build lasting relationships with her patients through breast radiology.

“I realized breast imaging suited everything I really loved—seeing lots of patients, getting a variety of cases, and interacting with care teams—but it also allowed me to talk to patients, run a clinic, and build relationships,” Walsh says. “It was in a roundabout way and definitely by chance, but now I love my job.”

She also was aware that women were a distinct minority in radiology. Luckily, Iowa was home to several female radiologists who served as mentors, including Iowa graduate Joan Maley, now the Wendy R.K. Smoker Professor of Radiology and director of the neuroradiology division.

“At an Iowa Radiology Society meeting about seven years ago, it was presented that there were only about 20 female radiologists in the state of Iowa, and probably half of them were at the University of Iowa,” Walsh says. “Without those mentors, it would have been a lot more difficult for me to see myself in that role.”

A strong network of medicine alums

Carver College of Medicine student adding pin to a U.S. map

The UI Carver College of Medicine is proud of its graduates and has created a network to share the stories of its graduates, broaden and sustain friendships among alumni, and spark interest in the College. Our group of almost 23,000 alumni is composed of medical education, residency and fellowship training, associated medical sciences, and basic science program graduates.

One of the most useful things she learned in medical school was how to break bad news. Now, she uses the skills she learned every day to help ease a patient’s fears when she delivers a breast cancer diagnosis.

“People often ask me how I do that every day without feeling upset. And it’s true; you’re talking to people at one of the hardest times in their life,” she says. “The way I look at it is that no matter what, somebody is going to tell them that news—me, or another physician, or they’ll read it themselves. My job is to tell them in a way that doesn’t terrify them and that lets them know that there’s a support system behind them. To let them know that we understand how scary it is, but we have next steps in place. That can make it a little less horrible.”

Making a difference

At the Genesis Center, Walsh has helped develop a high-risk screening program for women determined to be at an elevated risk of breast cancer. The program provides education to primary care physicians in the area about risk factors and resources available to them so that these patients can be identified early and monitored carefully for signs of cancer.

“We ensure high-risk women are getting the appropriate screening exams to increase our chances of finding any cancer as early as possible,” Walsh says. “It’s rewarding to me to find somebody’s breast cancer while it’s very small and treatable. When that happens, I know, ultimately, I have made a difference in what the rest of their life is going to be like.”

Women are still in the minority in radiology, but in the Quad Cities area, Walsh has found community and mentorship with a group of women in medicine that provides mutual social connection and support for its members. The group has become a way for Walsh to continue the mentoring relationships that helped her find her path in medical school.

Her advice to medical students is to take advantage of every opportunity offered to them in medical school.

“Learn from other students, fellow residents, faculty, nurses, patients, everyone. You will never again be surrounded by so many chances to learn as you are right now,” she says.