Ask most 10-year-old boys what they want to be when they grow up and you'll likely hear fireman or cowboy, maybe NBA player. Had you asked a young Robert Wallace, however, you would have heard precisely what he calls himself today: surgeon.
Dr. Wallace took a decidedly circuitous route to Memphis. Born in Maryland and raised in eastern Pennsylvania, Wallace served a pair of stints in the Navy out of San Diego (first as a hospital corpsman then later as a general medical officer) before and after attending the prestigious Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. He moved to Memphis in 1991 for two years of training as a plastic surgeon at UT Memphis, then accepted the job as chief of plastic surgery in 1996. Along his many trails, though, Wallace has been single-minded in his career pursuit.
"I can't see myself ever getting bored," says Wallace. "I get challenged regularly with complicated cases. I like the thought of being confronted with a problem and multiple ways to fix it, then deciding the best way. It's truly a head-to-toe specialty."
Wallace credits his years with the Navy for sharpening his skills and preparing him for a career that would leave predictability far behind. "I was out at sea for nine months a year, where I was a doctor for 10 cruisers and destroyers," he explains. "You fly around in a helicopter and take care of whatever's needed. It was hours of boredom, or moments of terror. Accidents, heart attacks, infectious diseases. I saw malaria, you name it. Things I'd only read about in medical school."
Traumatic injuries and illness aside, Wallace estimates that half his work is cosmetic surgery. He describes a day in mid-April when he saw one patient who needed her nose replaced (having lost it to cancer) then met with a pair of sisters to discuss breast augmentation. "On the surface," says Wallace, "you would say the breast-augmentation patients aren't as important, but in reality they are. From a financial standpoint, it allows me to do some of the other cases I do. The reimbursement for children's cases is horrendously poor."
An avid golfer, Wallace met NBA player Jason Williams on a course and struck up a friendship with the former Grizzly point guard that led to the start of a foundation -- the We Will Foundation -- to benefit children with facial deformities.
"I spent some time in Paris, France," reflects Wallace, "working with children who have birth defects, facial and cranial malformations. Helping those children is extremely rewarding. Many times the problems are so complicated, you can't make huge strides. But the improve-ments can be dramatic."