As Houston-based orthodontist Heather Brown, DDS, puts it, it took a perceived failure for her to actually succeed and discover her purpose.
While in college, Brown knew she wanted to work in healthcare. She worked at the local hospital, shadowing different practitioners, to explore what path was right for her. Ultimately, she decided to pursue a master’s in public health administration. She applied to the graduate program at the University of Southern Mississippi—Hattiesburg, the university at which she was about to finish her undergraduate degree. She expected everything to go as planned.
The graduate program rejected her due to her GRE scores. Brown was devastated.
She decided to sit out a year, taking the time to figure out what was next. She devoted herself to volunteer work, including a stint substitute teaching in the local public-school system and volunteering in her hometown dentist’s office.
Harold Kolodney, Jr, DMD, FACP, saw that Brown was both dedicated and reliable, coming to volunteer every day; so, a few months after she started, when his one assistant was put on bedrest during her pregnancy, he made Brown an offer, asking her to come on board as an employee.
“That’s when I found my true love for dentistry,” she recalls. She appreciated both the creativity and
the hands-on aspect the work entailed. She applied to dental school just months after starting as his assistant, and was accepted at Meharry Medical College, in Nashville. She started school the following semester.
“That’s my journey,” says Brown. “I always think about it and say, if I had been accepted to the master’s program, who knows what direction I would have gone in. Opportunities presented themselves as I tried to find my way. Volunteering and exploring different options, is how I found my passion, which is dentistry.”
Once at Meharry, it was Brown’s own personal orthodontic treatment that motivated her to pursue the specialty. Growing up in the small town of Jackson, Miss, Brown had been teased about the gaps between her teeth; but raised in a single parent home after her parents divorced, the resources weren’t available for her to afford treatment as a teenager.
“My mom did the best she could with us,” says Brown, “but she couldn’t afford to put me in braces. So, I promised myself that the first chance I have, I’m getting braces.”
At Meharry, Brown was able to get treatment. She chose her professor, Sandra G. Harris, DDS, FACD, who also had a local private practice where Brown was working as an orthodontic assistant while going to school, to treat her.
“She was changing my smile with braces and I absolutely loved everything she did. I loved seeing the progress,” Brown says. And while working there, she got an up-close view of how patients’ lives were changed by the work Harris was doing.
“Working there, you’re watching these smiles transform. Each visit the patient comes in and it’s like ‘Whoa!’ You’re seeing this huge change, and you’re developing relationships with the patients because most people have to wear braces at least a year to 2 years.”
Brown also saw how much fun Harris was having in her practice. “She wasn’t as stressed as the other specialists in dentistry. With her, it was fun. She dealt with kids, which I loved and she was a great mentor.”
Once Brown completed her residency at Howard University, in Washington, DC, she knew she wanted to return to the South to set up her practice. With a sister who was in law school in Houston, she opted to go there. An instructor at Howard had told her to make a point of meeting up with Elgin E. Wells, DDS, one of the first African-American orthodontists in the Houston area who had been in practice there for over 30 years. With an interview scheduled for an associateship at another orthodontic practice, Brown stopped by Wells’ office just to say hi. Instead, she ended up with an offer from him to come on as an associate.
“It wasn’t expected. It was just a meeting,” Brown recalls. But that meeting led to Brown working as an associate there, and, 6 years later, buying the practice from Wells who had decided to open an office closer to his home. Now 15 years on, Brown advises new graduates to seek out a similar arrangement.
“I tell them, if you can position yourself with an established orthodontist that may be close to retiring in a couple years, do that. Coming out of school, you’re still learning and there may be situations you encounter where you might want a little help or a mentor right there. Having [Wells] in the practice with me for those few years really helped me,” Brown says.
Taking over a practice from an orthodontist who was well-known and well-respected in the community required that Brown step up her game to make a name for herself. But she was fortunate to have an example to follow.
“He was my role model,” she says of Wells. “I wanted people to look at me like they looked at him.”
Brown made a point of involving herself in the community and made giving back a priority. She started the Houston chapter of Smile for a Lifetime, a national non-profit that provides free orthodontic treatment to children in need. The chapter typically treats seven kids per year and has donated over $250,000 in services since its inception in 2012. And after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston last August, Brown and her staff created a t-shirt and cap campaign to raise funds for patient families that had been affected. And while Brown has done the usual marketing and visits to local dental offices, it’s her work that has proven to be the best way to build her reputation.
Clinically, Brown believes in early treatment. “I’ve seen a great benefit in starting kids early,” she says. “The majority of the time I won’t actually put braces on them, but I will do functional appliances to help with guiding their jaw growth. And a lot of them, even if a child comes in and they’re just not quite ready, I will put them on a recall.”
When it does come to placing brackets, Brown says she pays attention to size. “A lot of patients come in and they don’t want anything that’s big and bulky. So, I look at the size of the brackets—the profile, height—as well as the torqueing and the different built-in mechanics of the brackets.” And once she does find a bracket system, or a company, she likes, she admits it’s hard to get her to switch. She has been using the Atlas™ Bracket System from DynaFlex, as well as the company’s functional appliances, retainers, and night guards, for several years now.
Brown loves the idea of having one company that offers everything she needs. She also appreciates customer service. “I like the fact that I can just call them up and say, ‘I have a case where….’ Let’s say I have a patient that comes in and the appliance that DynaFlex offers is not quite what the patient needs; they will do a special design for me.
“It’s great to have that relationship where I can just get on the phone and say to the general manager of the orthodontic lab, ‘Randy, this is what I need. What do you think?’ He’ll give me some ideas on what he can do from a lab perspective to give me the outcome I’m looking for.”
Brown has also embraced accelerated treatment with AcceleDent® (OrthoAccel Technologies Inc). It has become a popular choice in her practice, whether for teenagers trying to get ready for prom or brides coming in wanting to complete treatment before their weddings. Brown has been using it in her practice for over 8 years and now confidently says to patients, “Well, normally your treatment would take a year, but we can safely speed this up a bit, and you can have the beautiful smile you want in less time.”
She’s done a number of appearances on local news and talk shows to talk about the device, as well as about other products she uses in her practice, including Invisalign® (Align Technology Inc) and digital scanning. “[These appearances] not only say these appliances or new products are available, but they’re available in my office. They create awareness that I offer them,” says Brown, who was recently featured in Houstonia magazine as one of the 10 Houston women “making it happen.”
Brown firmly believes that women in orthodontics need to make themselves more known. She shares that she is often the only women in the room at industry events. “It’s definitely a male dominated field and sometimes I think the women [in the profession] don’t jump out in the community like the male doctors do. The male doctors are making their names known.
“I have kids—two boys. I’m a mom and a wife. I’m very active with my kids and their schools. But I still get out in the community and I make my practice known,” she says.
When it comes down to it though, doing good quality work and asking patients for referrals has probably been the best referral source for Brown. That, and great customer service, she says.
To ensure a stellar customer service approach, Brown makes a point of encouraging her staff of 13, to take advantage of any training opportunities, knowing that a good team is key to a successful practice. “A great team builds a great practice,” Brown says.
But perhaps the program that really makes Brown’s practice a standout is the summer internship program she offers in her practice. Brown always remembered how pivotal the opportunity to volunteer in her dentist’s office was to her. At a time when she was feeling lost, confused, and unsure of where she was going, that experience allowed her to find her passion. It’s an experience she wanted to give others.
But she wanted to do more than just offer students an opportunity to shadow for a day; she wanted to create a program that gave students a valuable and impactful experience. With no model to build on, Brown created, from scratch, a structured 4-week program, during which time interns study a curriculum she designed while also shadowing her and her team.
“I set it up where the first couple of weeks is basically like a classroom setting where they are actually learning dental anatomy and different aspects of dentistry. I created a curriculum for them, with a book and binders. After that, they actually move into the clinical area. They wear scrubs and have ID badges,” Brown shares.
While week one is dental anatomy, week two is all about treatment planning and learning about the different malocclusions. “I have them looking at why we even put braces on patients—they get to see all different types of cases,” she says.
Once students have “graduated” to the clinical area, they not only observe Brown, but they also partner with one of her assistants. “Not only are they able to see things from my perspective and my job, but they get to see my assistant’s job.” Interns are given the opportunity to make retainers and to bond brackets on models. Once all their program hours are completed, Brown awards them a certificate of completion.
While there have been a few interns who at the end of the program say, “Oh, my goodness! I do not like teeth. I do not want to do this,” there are those who find a passion for the field. So far, eight of her former interns have gone on to dental school.
“I say to [my interns], ‘The purpose of this internship is not for you to become an orthodontist; it’s for you to decide if this is the best field for you, if this is the career for you.’ I say, ‘You’re going to leave here and you’ll know if this is something you want to do’,” says Brown.
And for those who know at the end that orthodontics or dentistry isn’t right for them: “I tell them, ‘That’s good. I’m glad I was part of you learning that you don’t want to do this instead of you spending thousands of dollars in dental school and finding out it’s not what you want to do.’ My first year of dental school, seven of my classmates dropped out the first semester because they didn’t realize what dental school was all about and realized they didn’t want to do this,” she says.
Brown’s internship program has been running for 8 years now. While she initially advertised the internship program, she now has applications coming into her office in volumes. This led to an expansion of the program, which now runs two sessions per summer—one in June and one in July. The program is open to both high school and college students.
While Brown does give local applicants preference, she has had applications come from New York and Atlanta. Applicants are judged first and foremost on their interest. Brown requires an essay and looks for students who want to find out if a career in dentistry or orthodontics is right for them—not someone who is just looking for community service hours. From there she looks at grades and other factors.
While a perceived failure may have put Brown on the path to dentistry, and, ultimately, orthodontics, she says it was her unwavering faith in God and the opportunity to explore and be mentored that led to her success. Now she is making sure a new generation of future dental practitioners find the same opportunity and success as they try to find their way.
“I started my internship program because I remember what I went through. The only reason I found my passion for dentistry was because I was able to volunteer and I was able to actually sit in, observe, and shadow my dentist,” Brown says. “I wanted to create something that would truly make a difference to our young people, something that they can learn from and always remember.” OP