I wanted to go into medicine, Cheryl Callahan, DDS, recalls. My guidance counselor told me that women don't go into medicine. They go into nursing. And since I didn't have very many people in my family who went to college, when discussing it with my parents, it sounded great. We didn't know better.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But that’s hardly the path Cheryl Callahan, DDS, took to becoming a successful Rockville, Maryland dentist. Blame it on her high school guidance counselor.
“I wanted to go into medicine,” Callahan recalls. “My guidance counselor told me that women don’t go into medicine. They go into nursing. And since I didn’t have very many people in my family who went to college, when discussing it with my parents, it sounded great. We didn’t know better.”
So Callahan started out working as a registered nurse, but wanted to get into emergency medicine. That required a bachelor’s degree. She obtained her B.S. in nursing from Northeastern University, moved to Michigan, and worked in the emergency department at the University of Michigan where she eventually became a head nurse. But the college wanted their head nurses to be “master’s prepared.”
Callahan decided that if she was going to go back to school for two years, maybe going to medical school was the best choice. She began taking her pre-med prerequisites, but then came under the influence of a professor at the university’s dental school.
“I wanted to do something with my hands,” Callahan says. “If I went into medical it would have been surgical. Dentistry offered that opportunity, plus it was very preventive oriented. And it allowed me to pull in my nursing background.”
She obtained her Doctorate of Dental Surgery from the University of Michigan, and says that all of the education, combined with her work as a head nurse, has been extremely beneficial in building her career as a dentist.
“But I did go back to my high school and spoke to the guidance counselor,” Callahan says. “I told her, ‘You really should never tell someone they can’t do something.’ But it all worked out. It just took the long way to get there.”
Commitment to Education
After graduating from dental school, Callahan moved to Maryland, but entering private practice proved challenging. She hadn’t graduated locally so she had no connections. And dentistry was still considered very much an old boy’s network.
She worked for three years as a contract civilian at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, then rented space from another woman dentist as they both began building their respective practices. When space became tight, Callahan felt it was time to start her own practice.
“But I needed to start the business part,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that when I started, I had policies and systems in place so I could make the business part flow.”
“That was a great thing,” Callahan says. “I’ve been in the same (Pankey) study group for 12 years. We meet two or three times a year. It has been a phenomenal small group learning program.”
What it has also been is an experience Callahan shares with students who spend time shadowing her. She tells them to take business classes as an elective while doing their undergrad work.
“You definitely have to have some business knowledge,” she says. “It was the best thing I did.”
While Callahan was taking business courses and building her career, she took time to adopt two children from Russia—her son Alec and daughter Marina. Alec has had learning and physical disabilities since being adopted.
“My daughter is extremely athletic,” Callahan explains. “He saw her participating in all these sports, and he was never able to participate at that level. So when we were introduced to Special Olympics from his private school for children with language disorders, they started in third grade with basketball and soccer. And from there it just grew.”
Callahan has been involved in Special Olympics fundraising activities, and helped in many different capacities over the years. Her son, who is now 21 years old, still participates because there is no age limit. And the manner in which the competition is structured keeps everyone on an even playing field.
“They try to group participants by their ability,” she says. “So you can always do well against peers like you.”
Having adopted two children from Russia, Callahan is active with Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption, an organization that provides international adoption support resources for families completed through adoption in 32 eastern European and central Asian countries.
“They provide a lot of cultural program opportunities for children to participate in,” Callahan explains.
She has also taken webinars and classes through the Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.), which provides programs for adoptees, parents and birth parents. Doing so has helped Callahan address issues surrounding the aspect of being adopted that have surfaced as her children have gotten older.
A Dual Reader
Callahan says that when she needs to relax she will often escape into a good book. But her reading interests serve a dual purpose. She considers herself a print traditionalist when she’s reading for pleasure, and murder mysteries are of particular interest. But when she’s walking or exercising, she prefers an audio book with a business focus.
“When I was going through Pankey all of the programs recommend all these books that you read,” Callahan says. “Pankey’s philosophy is that you balance life, work and spiritual. And so they always give recommendations of books in these different areas.”
Callahan has continued doing that, listening to something that can help her in some way with her practice. And then she shares what she learns with her staff. Together, they try to read a book each quarter, then discuss the book at regular staff meetings.
“Everybody has goals,” she says. “We set goals every year for the practice. We meet offsite at the beginning of the year and set our goals, and every person has at least one thing they’re working on to make themselves a better person, whether that’s professionally or personally. And I’ve been very fortunate to have some great staff that have stayed with me for a long time. It makes a big difference.”