Born to Serve
As chief of plastic surgery at Saint Peter's University Hospital, and through humanitarian work around the globe, the versatile Dr. Olson does a lot more than tummy tucks.
If your idea of a plastic surgeon comes from TV shows like Nip/Tuck or Dr. 90210, you haven't met Robert Martin Olson, M.D. As chief of plastic surgery at Saint Peter's University Hospital, and through humanitarian work around the globe, the versatile Dr. Olson does a lot more than tummy tucks. In fact, his zeal to serve others has led him to combine medicine with two other worlds: the military and lay ministry.
"In the old days, I would have been a general surgeon, because they did a little of everything," says the Griggstown resident, who turns 60 in December. "But I came up in the age of specialization. Plastic surgery gave me a way to be like a general surgeon, in that I get to help people with many different serious illnesses." He treats those dealing with severe trauma, major birth defects, progressive wasting illnesses like cancer and autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma and arthritis. "These patients' ability to cope with these Job-like, Old Testament health issues is truly inspiring to me," he says.
But surgical work alone hasn't been enough to satisfy Dr. Olson's need to serve. He grew up in Abington, Pennsylvania, in a family that has long produced both doctors and soldiers. As a boy, he heard about ancestors' military exploits in the Revolutionary War and just about every conflict since. He considered attending West Point, but went to Dartmouth College instead, and on to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. Still, he was haunted by what he calls his "Vietnam guilt"-an awareness that he'd missed the military experience of his generation.
"I was going through college while many of my friends served-and some died," says Dr. Olson.
But as his career advanced, with residencies at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital and Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston and at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, he found an answer. From 1988 to 1996, he served in the United States Army Reserve. He was on the staff at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., during the first Gulf War for three months in 1991.
"There was such a need for surgeons that I felt compelled to join," says Dr. Olson, who retired from the Reserve with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Working with patients led him into a third realm of service: religion. "I believe in holistic medicine," he says. "In its simplest terms, it means tending to mind, body and spirit. I sometimes pray with patients." For this purpose he attended the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, where he graduated magna cum laude in 2004.
"I deal with many people in advanced states of illness," he explains. "Now, as both a physician and a lay minister, I can deliver both physical and spiritual care."
Since 1997, Dr. Olson has made 16 overseas missions under the auspices of the medical volunteer groups Operation Smile and Healing the Children. Kenya, China, Peru, Thailand and the Philippines have been among his destinations, and his work has included the repair of cleft palates, deformed limbs and burns.
"Kids are my favorite patients," he says. "They generally heal well, and plastic surgery gives them a better chance at a normal life."
Dr. Olson has four children, ages 13 to 31, and two grandchildren. He enjoys hiking, biking and rowing on the Delaware River and Raritan Canal when he's not busy caring for patients-surgically or spiritually-and continuing a family heritage of good works:
"The Biblical Gospel verse, 'Whatever you do for the least of your brethren you do unto God'-that was expected in my family," he says.