Chelsea Whelham has never forgotten the piece of advice her father gave her at a young age – It’s never too late, he told her, to follow your dreams.
They were wise words that Nathan Whelham spoke to his daughter, leaving her and her siblings something to ponder, some words, possibly, to live by. And then, in 2015, Whelham turned those words into action and became a living example of that pursuit – at any age – of a dream.
At 45 years old, he packed up his family – his wife and their five children – rented the largest U-Haul truck he could find and made the drive from Washington state to Kalamazoo to chase his lifelong dream of becoming a doctor.
“It was very, very wide open,” Whelham recalled of discussing his decision with his family in the fall of 2013 that he wanted to go to medical school. “We were about to do something together, it was, ‘Jump and you’ll see, I don’t know what’s going to happen when we hit the ground.’”
Now, Whelham, 47, is more than halfway through his third year of medical school at WMed and is set to graduate in May 2019. Chelsea, meanwhile, is a freshman at Western Michigan University where she was awarded a full ride scholarship and is pursuing a degree in art education.
Chelsea said she loves telling her friends about her father, that she’s a student at WMU while he pursues his MD degree across town at the medical school. It’s humorous to her friends, Chelsea said, that she and her father both have WMU ID cards, and they can both ride the campus shuttle for free.
Chelsea said she is proud of her father and the work he has put in to this point in the pursuit of becoming a doctor. His actions, she said, have set a positive example for her and her younger siblings.
“I know people will ask me and say, ‘Wow, he’s 47 and he’s changing his career,’ and I say yeah, but he’s not even halfway done with his life yet,” Chelsea said. “I think really going after what you want even though you might be set in a place and doing something for a long time, that doesn’t mean you have to stay there. I am so grateful we moved for that reason.”
When Nathan Whelham came to WMed in 2015, he did so with a wealth of life experiences. He has bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry from Whitworth College where he also was a national champion javelin thrower. Later, he earned a master’s degree in science education from the University of Montana-Bozeman.
As an undergraduate student, Whelham said he knew he wanted to be a doctor but his attempts at applying to medical school at the University of Washington proved unsuccessful. The dream of becoming a physician was put on hold and in 1995 Whelham moved to Seattle where he worked with a group of art and drama students who traveled and performed around the U.S. and internationally.
Whelham called Seattle home for 18 years. He taught math and science there and met his wife, Amy, who also was a teacher. The couple welcomed Chelsea in 1999 and their four younger children – Cassidy, Paige, Zoe and Luke – followed in 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2006, respectively. In addition to teaching, Nathan and Amy ran a successful catering business.
In the middle of it all, Whelham said his desire to be a doctor never left him. He stayed involved in medicine, teaching a wilderness first aid course at the school where he worked in Seattle, in addition to math and science. Some of the students Whelham taught, he said, have since gone on to be nurses and doctors.
When the Whelhams moved to Spokane in 2013, he worked as a volunteer firefighter and EMT.
“I realized as I was doing that that I really came alive when I was teaching about medicine or involved in the medical aspect of things,” Whelham said.
By September 2013, Whelham had made up his mind to reignite his pursuit of becoming a doctor. He spoke with Amy who supported the decision and, during a conversation at a local Starbuck’s, Whelham said he and his wife told their children of the plan.
“I was really excited because I felt like we had all grown up in the same area for a long time with the same people and I was ready for something new too,” Chelsea said. “I think everyone was on board.”
With that, Whelham took the MCAT in 2014 and began applying to medical schools. He received several offers from different schools, but ended his search when he got the call from WMed, he said.
“It was just really obvious that (WMed) was where we should go,” Whelham said. “I loved the school, the city’s perfect to raise a family in and it felt like the right place. I liked the idea of the vision they had in regards to how they were teaching and integrating early clinical experiences and the curriculum centered around being a doctor and not just learning facts.
“I have a pioneer spirit and it just matched.”
Now, three years in to medical school, Whelham said he knows he made the right decision in choosing WMed. His journey has proven successful and that is a credit to his family, he said.
Whelham said his wife and children provide him with a much-needed balance that serves him well given the rigors of medical school. The family bought a home in Portage and have settled in to the Kalamazoo area nicely.
Whelham said that from the time he arrived at WMed, he made a point to study at home as much as possible. He works hard to be home for dinner and his schedule, thankfully, has allowed him to make it to his children’s sporting events. He said he also includes his family in everything that he does, including events the medical school.
In fact, in January 2017, Chelsea displayed some of her art during HeART of WMed, an inaugural art showcase at the W.E. Upjohn M.D. Campus that featured art, music, poetry and dancing.
“I’m blessed with an amazing wife, she is the superstar for sure, without a doubt,” Whelham said. “I live in the shade of this wonderful oasis of my wife and kids.”
As the end of medical school draws closer, Whelham said he plans to pursue residency in emergency medicine and is hopeful that he will get to complete his training in Kalamazoo. Still, he said he and his family know that the future, at least at this point, remains uncertain and their adventure could very well continue beyond Southwest Michigan.
“I would love to stay here,” Whelham said. “I’ve had a lot of great interactions and made a lot of great contacts. It would be nice to stay but the reality of it is that the future is still very uncertain.”
Whatever the future holds, Whelham said he knows his decision to go to medical school, to come to WMed was the right one and the adventure of it all has proven beneficial for him and his family.
“They made a sacrifice, they put down a lot of their comfort, a lot of their security,” Whelham said. “They made a bigger sacrifice than I did, for sure … I want them to understand the world is a big place and you should pursue your dreams and you’re not limited by geography. I think the world opened up to them in a way that would not have happened if we had not made the decision to do this together.”
Chelsea said she appreciates the decision the family made to move from Washington so that her father could pursue his dream of becoming a doctor. She has embraced Kalamazoo and said she loves the city and the way the community appreciates the arts. She has plans, she said, to study abroad next year in Italy.
“I would say it was definitely the right decision,” Chelsea said. “Now that I’m here, I love it. I really love Kalamazoo.”
For Whelham, he said he finds himself each day as a medical student using the skills he gained as a teacher to further his education and move one step closer to becoming a doctor.
“The more I know about it, the more I know I made the right choice,” Whelham said. “I use all of the skills I developed as a teacher relating with patients and faculty and staff. It’s a weird thing but I just feel like I’ve been training to do this for the last 20 years. This is where I was headed all along.”