Healthy family traditions: First-year dental student looks to add to legacy

October 24, 2022
A young man with a beard, works on a set of cast teeth in MUSC's dental simulation lab
First-year MUSC dental student Fleetwood Brown is hoping to become the 16th family member to graduate from MUSC. Photo by Sarah Pack

Twice a week, Fleetwood Brown would make the 45-minute drive.

A senior at Clemson University, Brown was an agriculture major. It was his last semester before graduation, and he already had a job offer in his pocket: working with farmers in Minnesota, teaching them how hydraulic machinery worked. But his heart kept whispering that there was something else. So, he listened.

The drive from Clemson to Greenville is just over 31 miles. Brown knows it well. It’s a mix of highways and back roads, a few curves and hills here and there, with plenty of farmland along the way, serving as a reminder of what could be. Over the course of 12 weeks, he made that drive nearly two dozen times. And his destination was always the same – his cousin’s dental practice on East North Street. But for as much as he enjoyed Preston Hamrick’s company, the visits were more than just family reunions. They were opportunities for Brown to watch Hamrick work and soak up all he could about the field of dentistry. After all, he could only run from destiny for so long.

Brown’s family has seen 15 family members graduate from the Medical University of South Carolina, not to mention the handful of other relatives who worked at the University over the years. Spanning more than a century, they launched programs; ran departments; one, Fitzhugh Hamrick, D.M.D., was even an associate dean. Now, as a first-year student – and class president – at the College of Dental Medicine, Brown is looking to add to that total.

During his agricultural days at Clemson, Brown spent one summer working on a ranch in Wyoming. Photo provided

With a family tradition like that, it seems almost impossible to think he would ever do anything other than work in health care. But right up until that last semester of undergrad, it seemed a very real possibility.

“Yeah, you’d think it would have been on my radar, but it really wasn’t,” he said. It was a chance meeting with some surgeons and some key advice from an uncle that changed the course of his future and opened his mind to different possibilities.

“When I was a kid, all I wanted was to be a dentist. But somewhere along the line I started to think I didn’t have what it took.” he said. “I think I lacked the confidence. But lucky for me, the right people caught me at the right time and convinced me you only get one shot, and if I didn’t take it, I might regret it.”

His family boasts seven College of Dental Medicine graduates, seven College of Medicine graduates and one College of Health Professions grad. Many of them are still in practice today, both in Charleston and in other parts of South Carolina.

If things go according to plan, Brown will graduate in 2026, and the idea of working in the freezing cold of Minneapolis will only be a faint memory.

“It might sound weird, but in some ways, the two things – farming and dentistry – aren’t all that different. With both, you get to work with your hands and people every day. The big difference, for me at least, is that I think I’ll have the opportunity to kind of pay things forward. To give other people that same self-confidence a handful of dentists gave me once upon a time. And that’s really exciting.”

Where he’ll go from there is still to be written. Maybe he’ll move across the country. Maybe he’ll stay in Charleston. Or maybe, he’ll move to the Upstate to work with his cousin at his practice – fittingly, called Heritage Dentistry.