PHYSICIAN SPOTLIGHT: DR. BETHANY GALLAGHER | Dr. Bethany Gallagher, Vanderbilt Orthopaedics, Ankle Trauma, Central Tennessee Dressage Association, Washington University, University of Pennsylvania

Vanderbilt Foot & Ankle Surgeon Brings Her Medical Passion and Love of Horses to Town

As one of just a handful of women orthopaedic surgeons in Middle Tennessee — and the only one specializing in foot and ankle surgery, particularly trauma, you’d think Bethany Gallagher, MD, might get on her high horse. Yet, that’s not Gallagher’s style … unless you mean that literally.

A skilled horsewoman, Gallagher joined the team at Vanderbilt Orthopaedics in 2010 and is swiftly building a practice alongside partner, Brian Thompson, MD, whom she credits with helping launch her career here.

Born in the Bryn Mawr area of Philadelphia, Gallagher and her family moved to Houston when she was 8. That’s where her parents and sister still reside. Once she hit Texas, she caught a familiar disease in those parts – horse fever. She swam and participated in other extracurricular activities at school, but event riding was her passion.
When it came time for college, Gallagher headed back to Philly and the University of Pennsylvania, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in bioengineering. “I liked the material science part of it … the engineering portion of it … and I took some engineering classes that focused on kinematic joints and things like that,” she explained.

Her mentor? A total joint surgeon. “That can be quite attractive when you go to clinics because a lot of the patients really like the outcome. They suffer with painful arthritic joints. They get a replacement, and then they’re able to walk. It was nice,” she said.

And that experience molded her career. “I was a straight shot. I went from the University of Pennsylvania to the University of Texas at San Antonio. To be an orthopaedic surgeon was really all I wanted to do,” Gallagher said.

She admitted that she “wasn’t too savvy” about choosing a medical school based on prominent faculty members and their strengths, but it didn’t seem to matter. “I happened to fall into a department that had some pretty renowned names. That was helpful when I wanted to do some research,” she acknowledged. In particular, she said she was influenced by Charles A. Rockwood, MD, professor and chairman emeritus of the Orthopaedics Department at the UT Health Science Center San Antonio. Rockwood is a prominent shoulder surgeon who worked closely with DePuy Orthopaedics in the development of the Global Shoulder Arthroplasty System.

Yet it wasn’t shoulders, hands or knees that interested Gallagher. Much to the surprise of some of her colleagues, she was fascinated by foot and ankle trauma surgery, thanks to a subrotation with a local San Antonio surgeon. Gallagher headed to Washington University in St. Louis for her residency and internship to make that dream a reality. Her research at WashU focused on trauma and new technologies for locking plates, and research during her fellowship at Florida Orthopaedic Institute followed suit with a focus on ankle fractures. She said she hopes to do more trauma research at Vanderbilt.

It was Vanderbilt’s close association with WashU that eventually landed her in Nashville, even though she had every intention of returning to the Lone Star State. Rick Wright, MD, WashU professor in Orthopaedics and residency program director, completed his residency at Vanderbilt, and Thompson, Gallagher’s future partner, was a fellow at WashU when she was a resident. Both encouraged her to take a look at Tennessee.

She doesn’t regret it. Gallagher anticipates that she eventually will move her practice to Mt. Juliet to augment Vanderbilt Orthopaedics’ presence in that rapidly growing community.

Asked if orthopaedic surgery is a tougher fit for women than men, Gallagher said, “I think it can be in certain fields and in certain practices but not at Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt is a very woman-friendly program.” Then she added, “I think as programs become more progressive, you’ll see more women. As you get more women, more women will go into it. They’ll see that you can have a life, have a family, do all the things you want to do, and you can do the field of medicine that you love. You don’t have to choose anymore.”

In Nashville, Gallagher’s closest family member is Bebop, her beloved horse honed in the art of dressage. Once Gallagher established her Middle Tennessee roots, she reached out to the area’s vibrant horse-lover community and was quickly embraced. Gallagher was soon in the market for her own mount, and her riding instructor suggested she contact a Texas dressage trainer who also sells horses. Gallagher headed southwest to familiar ground, where she met Bebop, who was originally owned by a Middle Tennessee resident. “I went down and looked at him, and he’s beautiful. It’s a small world,” she said. “I bought him and brought him back, and the former owner is still in the area. So Bebop has a small fan club of people who knew him as a baby.”

Gallagher and Bebop are a happy pair these days, active in the Central Tennessee Dressage Association. “The dressage riders are a nice community, and the people I ride with here have been really proactive in getting me to shows and introducing me to all the people in the area who ride and ride at the upper levels,” she said.

The dressage scene is a little tamer than Gallagher’s earlier days. “I used to do a lot more jumping, but I don’t as much anymore because if I fall off and get hurt, I won’t be able to keep my horse,” she said. Nonetheless, she confessed that she still jumps occasionally, but not competitively. Apparently, that’s a horse of a different color.