Dr. Delroy Brown’s successful dentistry practice is a few blocks away from the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in Central Brooklyn. In our conversation, he discusses his roots in the Dry Harbour Mountains of St. Ann, his transition to the United States, the impact of thoughtful and caring mentors on his life, his responsibilities as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserves, his lens on the practice of dentistry, and lessons he imparts to his children. Over the years, Dr. Brown has contributed countless hours of his expertise to Jamaicans on island via volunteer medical missions. He recently added a new priority to his already diverse portfolio: he is now working with his daughter to support her start-up businesses.
LM: Where are you from and what was life like there?
DB: I was born in 1964 in my grandmother’s house in the hills of St. Ann…Green Hill. My people were farmers. We grew all the food we ate. We raised chickens, goats, pigs, rabbits. We planted all the food crops: yams, potatoes, corn, bananas. We had lots of fruits from mangoes to jackfruit to oranges. One of my uncles even raised bees so we had our own source of honey. We learned how to eat healthily. Those fruits were our snacks. We had an outhouse. We had a rain water catchment system to supply us with water for personal consumption and for the farm. This catchment system was especially important when there was a drought. And my grandmother had to boil water to wash me. Our house was made of mud bricks that my family made. Living in the hills as we did, we had to be self-sufficient. We learned how to take care of the land because the land took care of us.
LM: It sounds like you and your family were eating close to the source and using building processes which are all approaches that are being touted by leaders in the sustainability movement today. Do you have other memories of life in Green Hill?
DB: Well yes…at the same time, I appreciate the things that we have here. My children don’t have a clue about this kind of living. At three and four, I had a kind of independence that children today rarely experience. I remember at five and six years old starting a fire and roasting potatoes…I remember picking peanuts and roasting them. My kids are so sheltered in comparison. There you had to grow up and learn to take responsibility for yourself. Living in rural Jamaica teaches you how to adapt to your environment…it teaches you self-reliance…it teaches you survival.
LM: When did you come to the United States? And what was your transition like?
DB: I came to the New York at eight years old. I came from a farm and went to a farm…Conklin Farm in Rockland County. My father James Brown used to farm in the hills of St. Ann became a farmer in the hills of New York. Conklin is a working farm that welcomes children and families for apple picking, hayrides, all sorts of fun activities. I remember my father baking the cakes, cookies and pies that the visitors would buy. He worked on the farm for 18 years. I went to Rockland County Schools, then Spring Valley High School and went to the State University of New York at Brockport for undergraduate studies. My father had come first and then a year later, my mother and I followed. My mother Eileen Clarke was a teacher in Jamaica but when she came here, she had to start all over again. She went back to school and retrained to become a nurse. She worked as a nurse for 35 years in Rockland County. My Mom and step-dad Donald Clarke always stressed education. Even though it wasn’t always easy, I graduated high school with honors.
LM: What was your college experience like?
DB: College was great at first. I did African and Caribbean dance and was with a dance troupe for two years. We learned dances from Ghana, from Nigeria…we even toured all over the place. I studied nursing at Brockport and all was going well. Then in my junior year, I got into a huge fight with the program’s director who felt that men should not be nurses. We were seven or eight men in a class of approximately 70 students. Most of us left the program because of the pressure…only two in my cohort graduated from the program. Then I decided to shift to biology with an intention to become a pre-med major. When I graduated, I didn’t have all the prerequisites for medical school. I worked for a year and did post-baccalaureate studies in physics over a summer.
LM: So how did you get to dental school?
DB: You are not going to believe this…I had all the paperwork for all the schools…medical, dental school…and I could not decide what to do. I literally took a dart, turned my back and tossed it. (Laughs and shakes his head) I knew I wanted to do something that would serve the people of my community. And I wanted to do something that was both intellectually and physically challenging. I got into New York University’s School of Dentistry because of my interview. My grades were not great…they were OK…but not the most competitive. The dean interviewed me. He told me that he was invested in increasing the school’s diversity. In my class, there were 16 people of African descent out of the 300 that matriculated…and only 12 of us graduated. I got a lot of support. In my first year, I got a New York State Regents Scholarship and NYU gave me an additional grant of $10,000. But that NYU funding was not renewable so I had to make other arrangements in the following years.
LM: It’s incredulous that you threw a dart to help you decide your future! What were some of your experiences in dental school?
DB: I caught on quickly. If they showed me something twice or three times, I would usually get it. I grew especially interested in surgeries. At NYU I finished my requirements in three years. Typically dental students spend four years. I was in the honors clinic after my second year. My teachers pushed me and helped me to access cases that only professionals typically get. I remember performing an immediate denture while still a student. This immediate denture resulted from the patient having periodontal disease and having to extract 16 teeth in one sitting. The patient did not want to go without teeth so we had the dentures measured and pre-made and we were able to fit them shortly after surgery. This is not the typical experience for a mere student. My mentors were Dr. Moses Snead, a top oral surgeon and Dr. Stan Dawkins, a prosthodontist who is also a leader in his field. These two African American men took me under their wings and told me how things were really like. They showed me what I would need to do in order to be successful.
LM: Do you remember any particular adversities?
DB: We learned how to make teeth in wax. And I was tutoring my peers in how to do this. But at exam time, I always got a C. The students I tutored would all get As. They would ask me what I got and would be surprised and shocked and would ask, “How could that be?” My mentors reassured me that I should not worry. They said that as long as I passed, that was all that mattered. They also said to get all the experience and skills-training I could because that is what would matter most with patients. They said it didn’t matter if I finished at the top or the bottom of the class…as long as I finished. It was more important to be a skilled and dependable oral surgeon. Their encouragement helped me a lot! They pushed me to perfect my skills.
LM: What do you like about being a dentist? Are there any challenges?
DB: I like doing periodontal therapy or gum work…and root canals. People don’t realize that dentistry is a labor-intensive profession. Many dentists end up with bad backs…poor hearing…poor vision. Dentistry requires you to work with micro measurements. What feels like a paper-thin thing in your hands can feel like a boulder in a patient’s mouth. Working in the mouth is comparable to working in a cave…except you are outside the cave…and all the elements you need to work on are inside the cave. (Rocks in his seat and laughs) There isn’t much that I dislike about my work. I remember Dr. Snead telling me that I should work hard to master the procedures I didn’t like. So I forced myself to do these procedures a lot. And now I don’t hate them. Dr. Snead said if you send a patient out of your office for a procedure because you don’t like to do it, then that patient might not come back. He said it was important to transform your weakness into an asset.
LM: A few years ago, you interrupted your practice to serve a tour of duty in the US Army in Iraq. How did that come about?
DB: I was always in the military. I was in the ROTC in college. In 1985 I did basic train in Fort Bragg, NC. It was a terrible experience. It was the most racist place I had ever been in my life. Up until then, I had not experienced anything quite like that. The drill instructors would call us all sorts of racist and derogatory names. Growing up in Jamaica, I had never been treated like that before. And then when I came here, I was insulated in a West Indian community upstate and at college. Even though the military is supposed to be a fair place, I did not experience that in boot camp. I even considered leaving. But the training pushed me mentally and physically. So I learned how to put up with the crap. That is how I became the first black dental surgeon in New York State for the US Army. With war escalating after 9/11, I went to Iraq in 2005. I was away for a total of four months, with three months spent directly in Iraq.
LM: What are your memories from Iraq?
DB: I was stationed about twenty miles away from the Iranian border. I remember looking over into this beautiful country…green with lots of trees and plants. The part of Iraq I was in had been decimated by Saddam Hussein as a way of repressing his people. Iraq is supposed to be site of the biblical Garden of Eden but Saddam wanted to deprive his people so he flattened the trees. He limited the crops and food supplies of the people. They could not feed their animals. They could not feed themselves. But more than the views, I learned that freedom has to come from within. If people don’t have the desire to be free, you can’t force it on them. Civil war is still raging there today. And I learned that freedom means many different things to different people. What is the point of having freedom and have no schools, no sanitation, no food, no opportunities to play. Does freedom equal the right to starve? I also saw that many of the legislators were hawkish about the war but they had no skin in the game. They were willing to send other people’s family members to war but they didn’t send their kids. Other people had to suffer with having their family members serving in the war.
LM: And professionally, what were your takeaways from Iraq.
DB: I got to do some procedures I had not done before. For example, I had to wire someone’s jaw. I had access to technology and protocols in Iraq that were not being used in the United States. We had the best in the world available to us. Patents and other prohibitions keep these tools from us. The rest of the world gets many new technologies before we do.
LM: How did you manage to hold your practice together from Iraq?
DB: My associate Dr. Notcher Amarteifio and my office manager Claudia Douglass held down the fort.
LM: How fortunate for you to have trusted colleagues to keep the shop open. How did you meet Dr. Amarteifio?
DB: Dr. Amarteifio is from Ghana and we met in Jamaica while we were on a volunteer medical mission with Health Care International. For more than twenty years, I was an active member doing service in Jamaica and other underserved places. We would provide preventive care, surgeries, OB-GYN services, opthalmology services, distribute condoms, you name it. We would work for twelve hour days sometimes and in a week, we would see three to four thousand children and adults.
LM: As a long-time practitioner, what observations would you share with others?
DB: A diseased mouth will transmit bacteria to the entire system. In fact, there have been cases where patients with plaque in the heart show evidence of bacteria from the mouth. It is common knowledge that several systemic diseases are linked to bacteria in the mouth.
LM: In your view, what is the current state of affairs in the profession?
DB: Previously the knowledge base for doctors was tops, now graduates are mostly studying to pass licensing exams and are not learning how to treat people. Many cannot even properly diagnose a patient. If you listen keenly, the patient tells you what is wrong. It is important to take time and go old school. Sometimes a patient might have malaise…twenty different things may be wrong. But if you ask the patient questions, you can limit it to one or two issues. Many new doctors are heavily focused on technology and don’t have the first clue of how to relate to people. They are relying too much on machines and not giving the patient adequate attention. It’s the difference you will see with doctors coming out of Cuba. Because they have had limited access to technology, they are very invested in differential diagnosis. That makes them way ahead of the game. I recommend that we go back to some of the old stuff.
LM: What are some priorities in your practice?
DB: We don’t just treat the mouth. Quite a few diseases show up in the mouth. For example, calcium deficiency shows up in the teeth and in the eyes. We make it a point to speak to our patients about their overall health, especially diabetes and high blood pressure. In fact, I had a patient and when I took his blood pressure once, he registered 210/175. I sent him right to the cardiologist. His wife works in a cardiologist’s office. But he was not caring for himself. I tell my male patients especially that untreated hypertension and diabetes makes men impotent. If they want to have healthy sexual relationships, it is important that they do proper maintenance. A reality that is rarely talked about is that many men in our community who are over 50 are impotent because they have untreated hypertension and diabetes. If those blood vessels are destroyed, nothing will help you. We have a holistic practice. We are not just concerned about the patient’s teeth. We care about the whole person. The dentist can help catch oral and head and neck diseases when they are just presenting. If we can catch a disease in the early stages, it is often curable. There are lots of blood vessels in the mouth, head and neck so if a disease in these areas goes untreated, it is often fatal because it spreads quickly.
LM: The current lightening rod in the health field is Obamacare or the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. What do you think about this innovation?
DB: A lot of doctors say Obamacare is not good. But the health system in America is broken…totally broken. It can’t stay the way it is. Obamacare supports preventive medicine. What I don’t like is that they took out the option of the government providing coverage and left that option to the private carriers. Obama should not have compromised on that element. But he wanted to get it started so I understand he had to do it. As much as I don’t like it, it is better than nothing. In time, I am sure it will be improved upon. What a lot of people don’t realize is that the Affordable Health Care Act brings costs down. If someone waits until he is very sick and then ends up in the emergency room, that is a huge cost. And if they don’t have coverage, then the government has to pick up the cost. With Obamacare, he can go to his doctor for preventive and interim care and forego the expense of emergency care.
LM: What new challenges are you organizing?
DB: My vision is to have a full service medical, dental and spa complex. This way I will be able to give my patients full service care. My daughter Denise wanted to open a spa. So I told her to do it here on site. She is the CEO of our in-house spa, Serenity at Parkside and of Jade Fusion which is an organic skin care product line. We didn’t want to buy products that were unhealthy or watered down. And since I had the training in chemistry and she had the training as an aesthetician, we worked for three and a half years before starting the company. We only use certified organic ingredients. And what we don’t get, we grew and make ourselves.
LM: You grow ingredients? What are you growing? And where are you growing these ingredients?
DB: Yes. We have a garden at home and we plant sage, rosemary, thyme, lavender, comfrey…all sorts of herbs. We grow all of these things and we put them in our products. We can harvest twice a year from our garden in Canarsie. Our products are as the label says: Made in Brooklyn.
LM: What other goals do you have for yourself?
DB: I am a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army with an option for promotions. I have 28 years in the service and want to get the full bird (Colonel status). I want to stay so I can get the star.
LM: The star?
DB: Yes…the rank of general.
LM: Those are some big goals. And they clearly require a lot of work. What do you do to let off steam? What do you do for fun?
DB: (Leans back in his seat and laughs) I ride my bike for fun.
LM: That’s it?! I’ll bet it’s a rigged out bike?!
DB: (More laughter) It’s a mountain bike…a Mongoose…. I can do all sorts of jumps with it…I can do sidewalks…stairs…the shock absorbers help with all the rough terrain. I also use my rowing machine at home. I like to write poetry. And I collect art. I have artwork in the office and at home from Erica Renee, Michael Escoffery, Ikale and Pam Allen. I also spend time with my family. My wife Debbie and I have a blended family with seven kids from our previous partnerships and between us. I also love to throw parties at home. I like to cook Jamaican and Asian foods. A college friend taught me to cook Asian dishes and now I do a really good squid dish.
LM: What lessons are you teaching the little ones?
DB: The best thing I am teaching my little ones is how to deal with finances. The biggest problem in our community is that we wear our wealth, we drive it, and we have our wealth in our jewelry. If we teach our children to delay gratification and to manage their money well, they will live better lives. I am also teaching them that there is a cost-benefit to everything. It is important that they know that every action has consequences. And they are also learning that they must have a plan and go about it with tenacity. When I was doing physics, at first, I couldn’t get it. But then I read the introduction where the author said he took physics five times and failed. But he didn’t give up. So whenever I felt like quitting, I would read that introduction. Here it was, he failed five times previously and now he was the author of the text book!
Dr. Delroy Brown operates Parkside Dental Group at 356 Eastern Parkway, between Franklin and Bedford avenues in Brooklyn. He can be reached at 718.493.3590. You can learn more about his services at www.thebrooklyndentists.com.
About the Author:
Lavern McDonald also has roots in St. Ann and has rich and fond memories of visiting her late great grandparents, the Weirs, on their farm in Green Hill.