Dr. Madison Michael (C’92) speaks about neurosurgery career for brain awareness week

By Samuel Carter
Contributing Writer

Neurosurgeon and Sewanee alumnus Dr. Madison Michael (C’92) returned to the Mountain on Friday, March 29 to conclude the Neuroscience Department’s Brain Awareness Week with his talk, “From the Mountain to the Operating Room and Back: the Journey of a Sewanee Graduate.”  

Michael described how he found success in his unorthodox path to neurosurgery, which all began at Sewanee.

While attending the University, Madison played for the tennis team and volunteered for the Sewanee Volunteer Fire Department. Though he entered Sewanee interested in pre-med, after his first year he changed his focus and graduated with a degree in Natural Resources. With this degree, he spent the next couple of years working in forestry and geology, but he realized that neither was right for him.

Unhappy with his original plans, he spent the next few years leading climbing tours in the western U.S. and parts of Africa and South America. He held high praise for what these gap years taught him: “I learned responsibility, organization, logistics, and hard work… all those things have helped me in my career,” he said. From these experiences, he hopes to teach students that “if there is something you want to do, don’t put it off until tomorrow.”

When it came time to focus on a career, Madison’s interest in medicine re-emerged, in part due to a nineties’ sitcom, Northern Exposure. He originally planned to be a primary care physician in a rural area. “I liked the idea of working in medicine, being connected to people, and being outdoors,” he said.

He attended the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in Memphis, TN, but a summer in Lawrenceburg, TN showed him that rural care was not for him. He eventually changed his focus to neurosurgery. After medical school he completed his residency in Memphis and an additional two years of training in the UK. He then returned to Memphis and took a position at the world-renowned Semmes-Murphy Clinic, where he works now.

During his talk, Michael did more than describe the path to his career. He told students what led to success. He started by expressing gratitude for his time at Sewanee. “My success in medical school and after that has been due to the teachers I had at Sewanee,” he said, “it taught me that you have to work hard to get where you want to go.”

But he also emphasized that a great education is not all you need to find success. Michael preached mentorship as the most important experience a student could have. Speaking on the mentors in his life, he said, “I was fortunate to have some great mentors. Look for your mentors every day. You will only have two or three people that will really influence your life and take you where you want to go. If you’re not looking, you may miss them.”

Michael’s influential mentors include his Sewanee tennis coach, John Shackleford; a Sewanee graduate and community member, John Nichols; and a teacher and colleague in Memphis, Dr. Jon Robertson. Throughout the lecture, Michael attributed success in his career to the passion these men taught him.

These mentors’ lessons, combined with his Sewanee professors’ commitment to their students, have inspired Michael to pass it on. In addition to performing surgery with Semmes-Murphey, he teaches classes on neurosurgery and directs the neurosurgery residency program at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center, of which he said, “this is the most gratifying part of the job. As much as I love surgery, it’s really fun to watch somebody grow… and find personal happiness.”

Michael concluded by reminding students how fortunate they were to attend Sewanee and preaching the importance of hard work. He stated, “If you really want to change lives, you have to put passion into everything you do.”