Oral surgeon keeps family foremost in his life

By TYLER BARTON/Montana State News

The office of Dr. C. Ryan Wallis is more inviting than you might expect. It seems to have the design philosophy of a rustic-but-modern lodge home. Everything is distinctly Montanan. The walls are toned with natural greens and browns, and the various decorations all seem to involve, in some way, pine wood or browned metal, including a custom-made sign behind the reception area that reads: BIG SKY ORAL AND FACIAL SURGERY.

Dr. C. Ryan Wallis and family.
Dr. C. Ryan Wallis and family.

This is no helter-skelter hospital patient area. On the contrary, I find myself quite at ease as I relax in the waiting room. An incredibly affable receptionist staffs the front desk. We strike up a friendly conversation which seems, to me, genuine – not something one is generally accustomed to experiencing in a doctor’s office, of all places.

Soon, Wallis comes to greet me with a smile and a handshake. He’s still wearing his scrubs, which also happen to be a forest green. Together we walk back to his office and settle in.

The doctor’s private office space – separate from where he counsels patients and performs surgery – is a collection of wooden desks, scattered charts, and personal memorabilia. On one desk, there’s a computer with dual monitors, upon which several programs are running. A pleasant breeze rolls in through the office’s large window. I can hear nearby traffic start and stop at the light on Kagy and 11th.

Reclining in an office chair opposite of Dr. Wallis, I feel no less comfortable here than I did in the front.

According to Wallis, the cozy feel of the practice is no accident. “You have to take a more human interest in patients,” he says. “You get big systems, big practices, big hospitals, it’s easy for patients to be treated like they’re a number, or like they’re cattle coming through the chute. But in a smaller practice like this, it’s easier to be more personal, which I like.”

It’s a preference that shows. There’s a sort of easy-goingness about the place, and the doctor, that is infectious. It makes me forget that I’m interviewing him, and I begin to believe that we’re just chatting.

It hasn’t always been like this, though. Wallis has only been practicing in Bozeman for less than a year, since last July. To get where he is now required many years of schooling. He went to four years of dental school at Ohio State, and then served another four years in active duty as a part of the air force. It was there that he became interested in specializing in maxillofacial and oral surgery.

It’s a mouthful of a profession, and it’s just as technical as it sounds. Oral and facial surgeons are veritable super-dentists, and can treat diseases, injuries, and defects in the head, neck, face, jaws, and the hard and soft tissues of the mouth, jaws, and face.

In other words: It requires a lot of training.

To receive this training, Wallis did his residency in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“I somehow survived it,” he says, chuckling.

Residencies like this are highly rigorous, often demanding much of the residents’ time for schedules that can be unpredictable. Like other kinds of intense schooling, it can often intrude upon personal life. Or, in Dr. Wallis’ case, his family life. He is married with four children, the oldest being their 11-year-old son.

“We started residency when our youngest child was four months old,” he says.

Caring for their family came on top of 30 hour shifts at the hospital, and with the added unpredictability of sometimes being paged for emergencies, Dr. Wallis and his wife experienced much difficulty.

“As you go through,” he continued, “you have to adapt as a couple, adapt to different demands of the job. My wife Karen learned early on that her expectation would be that I wouldn’t be around at all, and if I was, that was a bonus … it caused her to gain independence – she’s always been independent – but we could rely on one another.”

After a pause, he continues. “And the kids adapt, too. They sort of get used to that.” He smiles, and says wistfully, “There are several photographs of me lying on the couch or the bed, with all of my kids around me, and me totally asleep, and they’re awake. And I’m just there, and that’s my only interaction with them, is just being near them.”

We share a laugh over that, but it’s clear that those were hard times for the Wallis family, and while those experiences made them grow together, they are more than happy to be in Bozeman.

“It’s been a really nice change to be here,” he stops, thinks, and says, “I think it was an adjustment for Karen to have me around.” He laughs. “She didn’t know what to do with me at first.”

When Wallis went into residency, he was older than most of his peers, who were generally at least six or seven years younger. When they were partying or doing other hobbies, he was taking care of his family.

“Some were married, most didn’t have kids, and certainly I didn’t know anybody who had four kids,” he says. “So that was different. But I didn’t ever view it as a hindrance. It would’ve been an advantage to go home and read more and ignore my family, but I chose not to do that.”

Briefly, I look around the office. It’s covered in pictures of his family; and he tells me that he plans to bring yet more decorations to the building, including art drawn and painted by his kids.

It seems that family has always been, and will always be, important to Wallis.

“You answer what’s important to you by how you spend your time,” he says. “My work is my solitude. My work outside of work is mainly focused on my wife and kids, and that is a deliberate choice. I could’ve stayed in academics, I could’ve stayed in the hospital… but I’d already missed out on enough when my kids were little. I wanted to be more available.”

At this point, my time with Wallis is wrapping up – but before I get up, he adds one last thing. “It’s hard to not measure success by measurables. The easiest way to do that is how successful you are in your job, but I don’t think that’s the true measure of success. I think the true measure of success is family unity and harmony. That’s when I feel the best about how my life is going.”

Spending time with his family is Wallis’ No. 1 goal. “Your job is a vehicle to allow you to do those kinds of things, but it can also be a detriment.” He says that it is important to, “be able to have a nice balance of a fulfilling career that provides for your family, but doesn’t make your family lose their father and husband because of it.”

With another firm handshake, and a few exchanged jokes, we both stand, chatting on our way out. The lights in the office are dimmed. The receptionists have all gone. It’s the end of a busy day for Dr. Wallis. I walk out of the door, bidding him farewell, and taking a complimentary chocolate from the front desk on the way out.

Later, I see him walking to his car in the parking lot, purpose in his stride. He has changed out of his scrubs and into jeans and a comfortable fall jacket. In that moment, I don’t see a specialist surgeon. I see a father going home to a family that loves him.

– edited by Virginia Holst

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