Dr. Lisa Callahan’s life has not played out according to plan. But that’s only because she is not a fan of planning.
Instead, Callahan – a 1983 East Carolina University graduate and 1987 graduate of the Brody School of Medicine at ECU – has focused on simply living life and trying to say “yes” to every opportunity that presents itself.
ECU alumna Dr. Lisa Callahan ’83, ’87 with USA Basketball team member Kyle Lowry after the gold medal game of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. (Courtesy of Dr. Lisa Callahan)
It would be hard to argue against the effectiveness of this strategy for the Washington, N.C. native. She is currently an associate professor at Cornell University, the medical director and co-founder of the nation’s first Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery and the chief medical officer at Madison Square Garden, where she oversees the medical care of five professional sports teams, including the New York Knicks (NBA), Rangers (NHL) and Liberty (WNBA).
She was also the first female head team physician in the NBA and the first woman to be named a team physician for the USA Basketball Men’s National Team, serving as the team physician for both the men’s and women’s gold medal winning teams at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’ve had a lot of firsts. And I never planned for them,” said Callahan, who has also hosted her own television shows and authored a book.
“I never intended to work with pro sports, I never intended to have a career in television and certainly never intended to live in New York City,” she added. “When opportunities present themselves, I try to say ‘yes’ to every opportunity and I try to learn the most from it, and that usually ends up resulting in another opportunity. So I don’t really plan, I just live.”
Callahan was back at ECU and Brody for the first time in more than decade last week, when she spent Friday meeting with Brody students, staff and administrators before delivering the convocation address during the medical school’s graduation ceremony on Saturday morning.
“It’s a little bit of a sci-fi experience because Greenville has grown so much and the campus has changed so much. There’s just enough things that look familiar to me, but a lot of it has changed,” she said. “I love seeing that it’s growing. I love seeing that it’s thriving and I just hope that it continues.”
While Callahan’s career has taken her all over the world, she said she has often fallen back on lessons she learned at ECU to overcome clinical challenges in her career.
Dr. Lisa Callahan being named the 2014 NBA Team Physician of the Year at Madison Square Garden. (Courtesy of Dr. Lisa Callahan)
“The clinical skills that I got here were really superior to what a lot of students get at bigger institutions. The students here get to be very hands on and really involved in the patient care,” she said. “One of the things that I learned here was to talk to patients, to communicate with patients and to listen to patients. The number of times that that has helped me sort something out and find an answer for a patient, that happens all the time, too numerous to count.”
The medical students who met with Callahan on Friday called her visit “inspirational.”
“Despite all of her accomplishments, she was so humble and so kind,” said fourth-year student Haily Vora, of Cary, who will be completing her internal medicine residency at the Medical University of South Carolina.
“Knowing that somebody from Brody can go on and do all of these amazing things is so inspiring and empowering,” Vora added. “It not only inspires me as an individual and as a graduating medical school student, but also coming from this medical school and this community.”
Classmate Alex Baumgarten, who will be heading to Vanderbilt University for anesthesiology residency, said it was a special moment to get to know Callahan on more of a personal level prior to Saturday’s ceremony.
“She talked about being present. We’re moving from Brody to a new place and she said don’t have one foot on either side of the creek, be present where you are,” Baumgarten said. “I’m nervous about going to a new community, meeting new people, and learning a new EHR system and new hospital system. … I need to realize that I have to dive right in. I need to really learn this life and be present for that and be present for my patients there.”
The graduates weren’t the only ones who were impressed.
“They’re very bright, they’re very different. They all came from different backgrounds, but I think they all have similar goals and they’ll all reflect very well on this school,” Callahan said of her future fellow Brody alumni.
Dr. Lisa Callahan speaks with medical students at Brody School of Medicine. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)