For Rob Wagner, a life’s purpose is what he calls “soul work”
Rob Wagner, M.D., says he’s never felt comfortable when people thank him for his military service. “I’m embarrassed,” he admits. “I was never shot at, and I never shot at anyone. So my experience is different than many others’.”
Wagner volunteered during the Vietnam era as a way, he says, of gaining maturity. “My dad, who was career Army, said that GIs who were drafted after college regretted burning their college years drinking and partying,” he recalls. “They wished they could do it again.”
After watching Johnny Shiloh at age 11, Wagner decided to join the Army after high school and go to college later. “It looked like patriotism, but it was really a desire for excitement,” he explains. He signed up for language school and studied Korean for a year, then was stationed in South Korea. “The work involved intercepting North Korean military radio transmissions,” he remembers. “You had to recognize important messages and record them.”
After completing his service, Wagner traveled throughout Asia and Australia, where he worked on a farm and a lobster boat. Shortly before he left Darwin, Australia, tropical cyclone Tracy hit, killing 71 people and destroying 80 percent of area homes. “The city was evacuated after the cyclone,” Wagner remembers, “but before we left, we volunteered. Medical people were flown in to help. That’s when I knew I was going to be a doctor.”
Soon afterward, he applied to college in Great Britain, where he earned a degree in marine biology and applied zoology. “I let go of medicine because it seemed too much like a fantasy,” he says. Then he met some young doctors and realized that medical school wasn’t out of reach. He studied family medicine at the University of Minnesota and completed a residency in family medicine at St. Paul–Ramsey Medical Center (today’s Regions Hospital).
Soon after taking a job with Group Health, Wagner says, he hit a slump. “I wasn’t out saving lives in Africa. It wasn’t the vision I’d had of being a doctor,” he recalls. “But then I saw I was looking at it in the wrong way. I thought being heroic in life meant traveling the world, climbing mountains, whitewater rafting. But it’s more subtle than that. I redefined my life’s purpose and never had to do it again.”
That purpose, he realized, went beyond being a good doctor. It involved the kinds of interactions that he calls “soul work.”
“What I wanted to do was be of service,” he says. “For patients and families, I’m an interface with a complicated industry.” He focuses on listening closely to patients, then helping them understand issues and options so they can make appropriate decisions.
Recently, Wagner says, he had an epiphany about his career. “The next time someone thanks me for my military service,” he notes, “I’ll say, ‘That young man went in search of his own maturity. Don’t overplay his actions.’ What I do now is service.”