When she was a medical student at the Howard University College of Medicine, Cheryl M. Burgess, MD, landed a summer job at the National Institutes of Health Department of Dermatology as part of its Public Health Service. Two others had been offered the same job—and had quickly quit.
“It was our job to physically examine and interact with patients who had the most severe, obscure dermatoses,” she says. “These people had disfiguring conditions such as neurofibromatosis. Some of them worked in circus traveling shows, such as ‘the Elephant Man,’” says Dr. Burgess.
But where others shied away, Dr. Burgess found her calling. “Many of those patients told me, ‘You are the first person who ever sat and talked to me. You are the first person to touch me.’ I realized how much I was helping people. And by the end of the summer I knew that this was what I wanted to do.”
A Day In the Life
Several decades later, Dr. Burgess offers both medical and cosmetic dermatology care in her downtown Washington, D.C., practice. “Most of all, I want to make people with medical conditions look and feel better,” she says. “Dermatology hits the points of all my interests. I like patient contact, but I also like the academic and research aspects.”
Since launching the Center for Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery in 1988, Dr. Burgess has expanded the practice to include a wide range of dermatologic and noninvasive cosmetic procedures, and opened a second location in Annapolis, Maryland. “I still teach, and I mentor students and residents. I do Phase 3 and Phase 4 clinical trials in my office. I publish papers, and I’ve patented two procedures—filler injection techniques that I created for HIV patients who have facial wasting,” she says.
Today, her biggest challenge is finding enough time in the day to accomplish everything she wants to fit in. “My father always said, ‘You can’t store time in your pocket, so make the best use of each moment.’ I am the person who will put in 200%, but I just don’t have enough time to complete all the tasks I want to complete,” she says. “For example, I would love to do more research, but I am now at the point where I realize it’s OK to occasionally say no.”
As a high school student, Dr. Burgess had her sights set on a career in the arts. Her father, however, was less keen on the idea. “My dad was the only one of eight siblings to go on to college, on an athletic scholarship. So he was adamant about his children going to college,” she says. “He put art out of my mind. He said, ‘That is not a profession. You need something to fall back on.’ A professor once told me that I’d make a good doctor, so I applied to medical school.”
When she completed her residency in the 1980s, dermatology was quite different than it is today. Collagen fillers had only recently come onto the market. Chemical peels and dermabrasion were state-of-the-art procedures. But even then, “it fascinated me how I could improve someone’s appearance with these new techniques,” says Dr. Burgess. “I realized that with dermatology, I had the opportunity to use my art background.”
Dr. Burgess was one of the first doctors to specialize in using fillers for HIV patients with facial atrophy. “People with HIV are living 20 to 30 years on medications that cause facial wasting,” she says. “Usually these are young people who feel great, but their faces look like a skeleton. They want to look the way they feel. One patient told me it was like wearing a big ‘A’ tattoo. It bothers them a lot. Whenever I finish a procedure with an HIV patient and hand them the mirror, tears flow.”
That kind of blending of cosmetic and clinical dermatology has become one of Dr. Burgess’ top specialties. “I like the medical side of facial enhancement. You really have to know facial structure, and it requires the work of an artist,” she says. “A lot of conditions can cause disfiguration or asymmetry—lupus, Bell’s palsy, lipoatrophy. People often bring in a picture of themselves taken before they had the condition. They just want to get back to normal. It’s even more rewarding to restore people than it is to make a beautiful person more beautiful.”
Photo by Mike Morgan.