Our Kind of People

Dr. Allison Wall, the inspirational Coast oncologist who is guided by faith

Video: Scuba Steve battles cancer

Steve Johnson, better known as Scuba Steve, talks about his battle with stage three colorectal cancer. Scuba Steve has become an iconic figure on the Coast since starting his T-shirt business in 2008.
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Steve Johnson, better known as Scuba Steve, talks about his battle with stage three colorectal cancer. Scuba Steve has become an iconic figure on the Coast since starting his T-shirt business in 2008.

Allison Wall’s children watch her cry over patients who die.

Her 6-year-old daughter always asks her, “Is another patient with Jesus?”

Wall has gotten used to that. “Yes, Katherine. They are with Jesus.”

Other parents get to explain how the bank or the store works, the oncologist, who specializes in cancer treatment, has to explain early in her children’s lives how people die and where they go.

At dinner, Wall, her two small children and her husband all pray for her patients.

“There’s no way I could do my job without my faith,” said Wall, who doesn’t hesitate to bring up God in the exam room.

Whether she is in the clinic, at Disneyland with her children or on a cruise ship docked in the Turks and Caicos Islands with her husband, Wall is always on call.

Even though she works long hours — often 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. — she is alert and quick of step. Her stethoscope and a crucifix necklace dangle from her neck. Her voice is usually upbeat, but by 5 p.m. it is a little raspy.

Her father wanted her to be any kind of doctor except a cancer doctor. But Wall knew her calling.

She could have chosen an easier profession, but she opted for perhaps the hardest. Her daily routine involves lab work, paperwork, treatments and comforting her patients. she sees 20 to 30 patients a day, which adds up to thousands over the last eight years.

No ordinary doctor, she gives her cellphone number to patients. She knows they wait on pins and needles for every lab result, so she won’t hesitate to call them with the news, even late at night or on weekends.

Cancer can be a deadly disease, but she believes in miracles.

“There are not many jobs you can see God work through people’s lives,” she said, tears brimming behind her glasses. “It’s really incredible.”

Steve Johnson, better known as Scuba Steve, talks about his battle with stage three colorectal cancer. Scuba Steve has become an iconic figure on the Coast since starting his T-shirt business in 2008.

‘The best medicine’

Wall sits at her desk beneath Norman Rockwell prints of small children in a country doctor’s office. It reminds her of her own memories of growing up as the small-town doctor’s daughter.

She learned about a doctor’s long hours from her father, who is 70 years old and still practicing. When she was little, there were days she saw him only a few hours. A lot of times she never saw him eat dinner, but when she turned 11, she began carrying charts for him as he checked on patients in the hospital and a local nursing home.

She started checking on elderly patients to cheer them up. The little girl walked into their rooms wearing her own stethoscope and asked if there was anything she could do to help.

“That was the best medicine,” she said. “Any complaints they had were mostly because they were lonely.” It was there she began practicing her signature bedside manner.

Wall worked at the hospital every chance she got, including summers, until she began her own medical career.

The Dothan, Alabama, native went to medical school at Auburn University and then the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

She began practicing on the Mississippi Coast in 2008. She works with five other oncologists at Memorial Physicians Clinics at Cedar Lake.

Now with children of her own, she prides herself on being in touch with patients’ needs. If her bedside manner were a formula, it would be faith, hope, love and repeat.

Everyone gets a hug. Everyone is prayed for. Everyone is remembered.

She keeps a book with photos and information on all the patients she has lost or sent on to hospice care. Their names fill more than half the notebook. The pages are worn where the cursive writing has been reread time and again.

Wall said she sometimes wakes up at night, worried she may not have added a name. She panics at the thought of forgetting someone.

Her desk and shelves are lined with photos of patients and family. To Wall, there is not a lot of difference.

“I know the human brain can only remember so much,” she said.

Doesn’t want patients to feel alone

Wall remembers watching her grandmother die of cancer when she was little. It made her want to help people who were suffering. She remembers the way cobalt radiation — a searing treatment of the past — burned her grandmother’s chest.

“I watched that,” she said. “For a long time I watched my mother take care of my grandmother … until she died.”

Now, her grandfather in Alabama has cancer. If Wall ever gets cancer, she said she would probably worry more about her patients than herself. “Who would take care of them?”

One of her former patients now helps mentor others who are not yet in remission.

Gulfport resident Kim Parks-Ladner, 54, was diagnosed with Stage 3 and 4 lung cancer in June 2013, one month after she became engaged to her husband, Kirk.

Parks-Ladner recalls the stabbing pains that awoke her one morning. Hours later, she was waiting on the exam table for what she thought would be a death sentence. But when Dr. Wall walked through the door, she felt a tremor of hope.

“Before she even opened her mouth, I felt the biggest peace,” Parks-Ladner said.

Twelve rounds of chemotherapy and 39 radiation treatments later, she is in remission.

Grateful, she told Wall to give her name and number to anyone who needed support. So far, she has mentored 10 other patients through their chemotherapy.

“You feel alone when you get diagnosed with cancer,” she said. She doesn’t want anyone else to feel that way.

“By the grace of God and Dr. Wall, I am still here,” she said. “She is an inspiration to the medical field.”

Lyndy Berryhill is part of a group of Ole Miss journalism students who recently spent a weekend on the Coast reporting for the Sun Herald.

About the series:

Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.