Dr. Robert Wright, a Puyallup surgeon the past 28 years, left for Milan, Italy, this week to present his 13th research paper to an international group of doctors.
That’s a remarkable number considering his lack of enthusiasm for research.
“Without motivated students, I don’t know that I’d have done much of the work that I’ve done with their help,” said Wright, 55.
His presentation to a conference on the subject of abdominal wall hernias will be shared by a 21-year-old Puyallup woman, Halli Wurst. She’s a premed student at the University of Arizona.
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“Having my name on a presentation like this helped me get a paid internship this summer,” Wurst said. “It’s something that makes me stand out from a lot of other premed students.”
For nearly 20 years, Wright practiced out of Good Samaritan Hospital. In 2007, he opened a surgical clinic in Puyallup, where his practice includes work on hernias, breast cancer, gall bladders and thyroid issues.
Along the way, he’s written for publications and presentations on topics including acid reflux, lymph node resections and hernia repairs.
At each step, he has reached out to local students interested in medicine.
“When I was in med school, an emergency room surgeon allowed me to shadow him and I learned a great deal,” Wright said. “I saw a 3-year-old child who’d been attacked by a rottweiler. Some lessons were on empathy.”
Knowing how much it helped him to “tag along” with a surgeon early on, Wright has encouraged his own job shadows — and offered research opportunities to others.
For some students, it helps sort out what they want to do with their lives. For others, it helps them decide what they don’t want to do.
“One of my first summers back as an undergraduate, I did some research with Dr. Wright on acid reflux after the repair of hiatal hernias,” Kelcey Rhodes said. “I think I was his first intern, and we published the paper in the American Journal of Surgery.
“I thought I was going into medicine. My experience with him helped me understand a day in the life of a surgeon, and I went into dentistry instead.”
Now Dr. Kelcey Rhodes has taken over the Puyallup dental practice of her father, Thomas Rhodes.
“Dr. Wright has the desire for helping young people to learn, to see them inspired. Local interns are his passion. He wants to share what medicine is doing for people and see if that would it be of interest to you.”
Born in Maryland and raised in Tukwila, Wright spent four years studying biology at Washington State University, four more studying medicine at the University of Washington.
Thirty years ago, he married wife Sally and began a family that included sons Richard, Daniel and Robert Jr., and daughter Julia.
No surprise, their family dentist is Rhodes.
“For all of his interns, things have worked out well,” Wurst said.
All were from Pierce County. The group has turned out a Chicago family practitioner, a pharmacist, a dentist and three students in medical school or in premed.
“I played volleyball with his daughter at Bellarmine,” Wurst said. “Dr. Wright heard I was premed and contacted me, gave me an amazing opportunity. Going to Milan now to deliver the paper? That’s amazing to me.”
Among the ironies is that Wright didn’t start out to become a doctor. He wanted to be a veterinarian.
“I came home after that first year (at WSU) and discovered at 19 I had a horrible allergy to dogs and cats,” he said. “Growing up, we’d always had them, and I guess I wrote off my symptoms as hay fever.
The decision to become a surgeon came with a price he wouldn’t fully understand for decades. At Good Samaritan, along with his regular office hours and patients, he would work the ER, usually in 72-hour on-call shifts.
“I missed a lot of the kids growing up,” Wright said. “That’s a regret. When we began this clinic in 2007, it changed my life. I found out what it was like to sleep through the night.”
The papers and presentations, he said, are the product of his professional curiosity.
“I’m a medical nerd,” he said. “I’m a blue-collar craftsman. I don’t do trauma surgery anymore, I do out-patient surgery. I enjoy giving young people a vision of medicine.”