By Marianne S. Jacobson
A tragic moment may change a person’s path, but in the case of Franz Wall it didn’t break his passion or thwart his promise. His is a story of focus, perseverance and inspiration. Full of potential, Wall began his dental studies at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry in July 2019. Early on, “he emerged as a leader and assumed both official and unofficial roles to help both his fellow classmates and prospective students get excited about dental school,” remembered Janelle Palomares, manager of student life and involvement for the dental school. Abruptly, Wall’s dream of becoming a dentist came to a halt after a devastating skiing accident in Lake Tahoe in November 2020 left him paralyzed during his second year of dental school. Two years later, however, he is thrilled to remain involved in the dental profession that he loves.
Wall grew up largely in Mariposa, California, as part of a close-knit Catholic family with eight siblings. Living on a spacious ranch, the family enjoyed plenty of sports and games, creative outdoor adventures, fort building and horseback riding. They took advantage of their proximity to Yosemite with hiking, backpacking and camping trips. His brothers and sisters remain close and influential role models.
Growing up, Wall was certain he wanted a career in which he could help people. On his dad’s advice, he researched dentistry by shadowing and interning with local dentists. Wall felt an immediate connection, as he was already an avid and talented woodworker sculpting with his hands. At age 14, he made the decision to become a dentist. In high school, he excelled at sports and continued woodworking. He chose to attend Thomas Aquinas College because he wanted a well-rounded, liberal arts education to develop the broader perspective and skills necessary to be a successful dentist. Wall said, “The critical thinking I learned in college has been a cornerstone of how I navigate my life.”
Wall chose the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry because of its three-year program and the positive culture and energy. He earned a full scholarship from the U.S. Navy Health Scholarship program based on his potential and DAT score. Once enrolled in dental school, he joined many clubs and served as California Dental Association (CDA) class representative. And due to his academic success during his first year, he was invited to be part of the dental school’s enrichment program enabling Wall to gain early clinical experiences.
Today, nearly two years after the accident ended his dental school studies, Wall remains beloved by both instructors and classmates. Dr. Cindy Lyon ’86, associate dean for oral health education, articulated the sentiments of many. “Franz is just a force of nature; he has limitless potential. I am no less excited to see what he does with his life now than when he was a student. No matter his life’s work, his impact will be enormous!”
The Dugoni School of Dentistry community supported Wall after his crisis. “He is devoted to his faith, and the strength and support of his family and the dental school carried him through the tough months after his accident,” echoed Marietta Daniel, group practice coordinator. Wall confessed that recovery and rehab were hellish; he underwent 14 surgeries and has more to come, but he learned a lot from fellow patients. Those close to him describe Wall in extraordinarily positive terms.
“Despite the tragedy and the many surgeries, Franz always stayed optimistic. His indomitable courage is an inspiration to all of us,” said Dr. Shika Gupta ’07 IDS, group practice leader and associate professor in the Department of Clinical Oral Health Care.
While recovering, Dugoni School connections reached out with career ideas that could keep him involved in dentistry. One classmate, Dr. Devon Scott ’22, recalled, “When we found out that Franz wasn’t going to be able to practice as a dentist, we immediately thought about potential alternatives. He could become a great professor or researcher within the world of dentistry. The sky is still the limit to his potential.”
Wall needed purpose and wanted to keep his mind active, so he jumped at an offer to work at CDA. Currently, he serves as CDA’s outreach and engagement consultant for student programs. “It is a huge blessing to be involved in dentistry,” Wall shared. And, true to form, he is already adding value. “In a short time, Franz has become a significant contributor to CDA’s work with dental students, said Peter DuBois, JD, executive director of CDA. “He has built upon existing relationships and created new ones to increase CDA’s presence and influence. His unique understanding of the audience and his creativity have led to engaging new programs and approaches that have allowed CDA to communicate the value of organized dentistry in authentic ways.”
Since his recovery, Wall has also received an MBA from Western Governors University, an online program that he had begun prior to his accident. His best friend, Dr. Ammon Kaopua ’22, noted that trying to also earn an MBA during dental school speaks to Franz’s character. “He is a very motivated ‘why-not?’ person with a spontaneous, adventurous spirit.”
Wall is known to tackle obstacles and that has never been more true than now. “Most people avoid pain and never fix the underlying problem,” said Wall. “I believe our pain is for the benefit of our character; it strengthens us and helps us build relationships with others.”
In his leisure time, Wall keeps engaged with video-gaming and 3D printer art projects. Always an athlete and former participant in fitness competitions, he continues to work out every day. He plans to play wheelchair rugby and adaptive archery in the near future. His goals also include driving (his custom-fitted car should be ready next summer), traveling to Ireland and France and extending his career into the dental implant guided-design space.
Wall continues to encourage dental students and alumni with his positive outlook. “Don’t give up if things don’t go your way; keep pushing even if it hurts. And, the more you give, the more you get down the road.”
Marianne Sampogna Jacobson, BA, MBA, is a freelance writer from Marin County.