Dr. Patrick Gallagher, Finding Happiness One Tooth (and one St. Paddy’s Day) at a Time

by Kym Byrnes, photography by Nikola Tzenov

Dr. Patrick Gallagher has been caring for the teeth of Carroll residents at his Westminster dental practice for 20 years. When he’s not making smiles shine, you might find him planning the annual Celtic Canter in downtown Westminster, throwing weights around in Hampstead, dreaming up a new beer to brew, or hanging out with his wife, three daughters and five granddaughters. But it’s the oral health of his patients that keeps Dr. Gallagher on his toes and motivates him to be innovative and on top of the latest trends in the field. You might be surprised to find that dentistry wasn’t what he dreamed of as a child, not what he saw for himself when heading to college, not what he prepared for as a student at Loyola, and not even the career he started after graduating. He would be married with children before his journey would take a turn, leading him to the field of dentistry, where he confidently says, “I truly feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Where did you grow up and what brought you to Carroll County?

I grew up closer to D.C., my father worked for the government so we traveled around a bit. I met my wife, Renee, at Loyola, and she’s from Westminster so this is where we settled down. We’ve been here for 25 years. We have three daughters, my oldest is Dr. Caitlin Kuhn, and she practices with me. Then I have another daughter who lives in Maryland and another daughter who has recently moved to Colorado.

What interested you in the field of dentistry and when did you know that was your path?

Dentistry is a second career for me. I started in banking and insurance and got caught up in the financial crisis of the time and got laid off. I knew it was coming. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next professionally. I thought about getting an MBA or becoming a CPA, but I was getting frustrated with the big corporate political entities and found that I wasn’t thriving in that arena. I missed the personal touch, the relationship opportunities. I began to realize that I craved that, that I didn’t do well in big organizations that thrived on politics. I wanted more of a relationship-driven opportunity.

I took my daughters to their dentist appointments and watched the dentist work and I found myself thinking, “I can do this and I can do it better than this guy.” My mother’s father was a dentist and my father’s father was a pharmacist. If I had been around them more, maybe I would have been impacted by them earlier on. So I went back to the office that day and called the dental school and said I want to be a dentist. All of this paperwork came in the mail and I talked to my wife, and she said she was on board. For the first time I saw what I was supposed to be doing — I truly feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I went back to school and my wife, a speech pathologist, went back to work. After being in practice for several years, I blended practices with Dr. Eden, who eventually retired, then my daughter joined the practice and now she’s a partner with me.

What is it like working with your daughter?

It’s a great opportunity. It happened organically and worked well because of that. There was no design or desire or pressure for her to be in this field or participate in my practice; it just all came together where there was an opportunity and it worked out for her to join the practice.

Has the field of dentistry changed at all since you’ve been in it?

I’ve been in dentistry for about 25 years. Technology has been a tremendous driver of change in the field. For instance, we’re now using digital impressions to make crowns, and we can make crowns in the office, so what used to be a two-appointment process is now one appointment. The convenience and efficiency that we can provide has grown or become available in a way that couldn’t be imagined before.

We’re proud that we’re providing that convenience and opportunity. We have an x-ray machine that takes x-rays in three dimensions so we can see much more detail and be that much more ready because we know what’s there or what isn’t there — sinus, nerves, how roots may be turned — that we couldn’t see with standard two-dimensional x-rays. I can show patients photos so they can understand what I see and why we need to treat something or not. The opportunity for co-diagnosis has evolved dramatically in dentistry. Technology has a lot to do with that. We do healthy-mouth scans so I can show you where there is wear and where it is, and next year we can take the same scans and show you trends so we can understand what’s happening over time. Evolution has allowed there to be more detail and communication and more precision.

What do you love about your job?

I truly believe that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel fortunate for that. When I was working at the bank and I was laid off, it was kind of a midlife crisis that happened to me in my late 20s as opposed to my later 50s, but it gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate, and I’m very fortunate that I had a supportive wife to help me on that journey. So often patients are uneasy at the dentist and uncomfortable and scared. I appreciate that I have the opportunity to help them and make them comfortable.

What don’t you love so much about your job?

I get frustrated with the controls and restrictions that dental insurance companies force on patients. I don’t believe these entities are concerned about the patient’s wellbeing and what care is best for them. It’s very difficult to work with entities that are not focused on the patient’s best interest.

What are you doing when you’re not fixing teeth?

I keep busy — I enjoy playing the guitar, doing CrossFit, making craft beer, and spending time with my five granddaughters.

Tell me about the Celtic Canter — where did that idea come from and how much work was it getting it off the ground?

I’m not a runner. I played soccer in high school and rugby in college. But my oldest daughter has run the Marine Corps marathon, my kids ran cross country, and several times my wife did a St. Patrick’s Day run in Baltimore, which cut off at about 4,000 runners. With that event, you got a free beer at the end, and it benefitted some cause. I would go to these events and the wheels started turning and I thought, “My name is Patrick Gallagher and we have O’Lordan’s here in town — we oughta be able to do something like this locally.” My wife and I conceived the idea of the Celtic Canter in downtown Westminster. I approached Dave [Johansson, owner of Johansson’s and O’Lordans restaurants in downtown Westminster] and talked about doing a running event that would benefit Access Carroll and Target Community Services.

The first year we had 179 people participate and it began to grow and after the third year we were kind of outdoing what O’Lordans could handle for a post-run gathering. I approached the city [of Westminster] and said this can become bigger and better — we could close the street and have vendors, and we could make this a festival instead of just a run. The city came back and said they could see it being good for downtown businesses in March, and the partnership was created. The event has really grown.

What’s ahead for you — what comes next in the Dr. Gallagher journey?

[Gallagher & Kuhn dental practice] continuing to strive to find ways to make dental care more effective and convenient for patients. We’re investing in the technology to help with that. For example, I think I do dentures very well, but we’re exploring how to make that more convenient — digital dentures is something I’m looking at with the intention of reducing the number of appointments for patients so we can deliver well-fitting, comfortable, good looking dentures in a shorter period of time.