20 Years, 20 Leaders: Katerina Gallus, MD


"I’m committed to making certain women are represented in leadership positions to set the example for the next generation."

Our connection to the experiences of those who came before helps to define the present and future of medicine. The Foundation is celebrating 20 years by joining in conversation with 20 women leaders in all aspects of medicine to understand their stories and how their experiences will shape the next generation.

Katerina Gallus, MD, has made a successful transition from military doctor and leader to a private practice in plastic surgery in La Jolla, California. As a Naval officer and physician, she was program director for the Transitional Year Residency, training nearly 100 young Navy physicians. A natural leader, she chaired the Plastic Surgery Department for three years before becoming the Specialty Leader for the entirety of Navy Plastic Surgery. She’s also a sought-after speaker and author/contributor.

Here’s what we learned from Dr. Gallus:

Why did you choose to go into medicine or your related field?

As a girl growing up near NASA in Florida, I was always attracted to science. I spent a summer at the University of Florida doing research in botany, then went on to the then biosciences area of NASA. Medicine attracted me because I liked more interaction with people then what was offered in the lab.

What’s your core philosophy?

It’s interesting and fulfilling to be able to change people’s lives by improving their outward appearance. That might be a baby’s cleft lip, breast reconstruction for a woman after cancer surgery or a tummy tuck for mommy. Plastic surgery isn’t frivolous work.

What motivates you?

I am a bit of an outlier and I am excited by the many different paths we can take to success. My mother, a homemaker, is from Chile and my dad was a police officer for NYPD. Both my parents very strongly encouraged schooling. I was the first in my family to graduate college, getting my BS degree from Duke University while on academic and ROTC scholarships. That gave me the opportunity to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, where I met and married my husband.

How do you motivate others?

It’s important to identify common ground. With mentorship, it can’t be assigned. If it’s not somebody you click with, it doesn’t usually work out. There need to be opportunities for people to meet and build those relationships organically. I love to mentor and guide young plastic surgeons as vice-chair of the Women’s Plastic Surgery committee of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. I’m committed to making certain that women are represented as speakers at national conferences and leadership positions to set the example for the next generation.

What challenges have you had to overcome?

My surgeon husband and I started our family in between multiple deployments. I deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom at a forward base in Afghanistan, providing immediate surgical trauma support to our wounded soldiers and sailors. After I returned home in 2011, we had our third daughter and settled into senior leadership roles at the Navy Medical Center in San Diego. In terms of work-life balance, I’ve learned to outsource so I can focus on my priorities. Spending time with my three kids is more important to me than cleaning the bathroom. 

Humans fail. Please share a time when you failed and what you did next to move forward.

In the military, the pay gap arises when you are not promoted. Taking on leadership roles is important to get to the next rank. In the Navy, I applied for department chair knowing that someone senior to me already had applied and I was not going to be chosen. The benefit was that I expressed interest in the position and got the experience of interviewing for the position. Two years later, I did get the job.

Who was your most important mentor(s) and why?

I didn’t have a specific mentor or someone who was my champion. I learned from watching others and adopting the habits of those I respected. In general surgery residency, I worked with a male surgeon who was only a few years older than I, he was a good example of what a surgeon should be and I looked up to and emulated him. He had very high standards in terms of putting the patient first and always being respectful to colleagues. He epitomized professionalism. Now I learn from some amazing female plastic surgeons across the country. It's more collaborative than mentorship, but it works for me.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

It isn’t enough to do great work and hope someone will notice. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, to raise your hand and risk failure.

How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition?

To ensure high-quality care, we need a steady supply of top-notch physicians. When I was responsible for plastic surgeons throughout the Navy, my favorite part of the job was making sure there were great candidates in the pipeline to ensure that the Navy would continue to have high-quality plastic surgeons. Looking to the future and preparing is key to success. I define success by being better than your yesterday self and preparing for your tomorrow. 

What do you see in store for the future of medicine and the related fields?

I would like to see more women in leadership. As a plastic surgeon, I have attended conferences dominated by panels in which no women surgeons are speaking. Although the content was valuable, I hate that there is a lack of female perspective in a field where more than 90 percent of our aesthetic patients are women. 

What advice would you give to the next generation of women in medicine and the medical sciences?

Be prepared to prove yourself and learn from others. I have filled that gap later in my career by forging strong relationships with women who are both older and younger. My three young daughters see me active in running a private practice and speaking at national conferences and I like to think that these types of things will influence them as they mature. They even help me polish my presentations now – they are obsessed with font and template design.

The Backstory on Dr. Gallus

She completed her general surgery residency at the Naval Medical Center San Diego and her plastic and reconstructive surgery residency at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. She and her partner, former Navy surgeon Trent Douglas, MD, are founders of Restore SD Plastic Surgery.