David (left) and Joey (right) Russell stand alongside their father, Dr. Al Russell, in the dental clinic at VCU School of Dentistry
David (left) and Joey (right) Russell have earned their Doctor of Dental Surgery degree under the tutelage of their father, Al Russell, D.D.S.

Brothers Joey and David Russell are used to the jokes and gentle ribbings from their classmates. Their father, David (Al) Russell, D.D.S., is interim chair of the Department of General Practice at VCU School of Dentistry. At first, they tried to keep the connection a secret, but, ultimately, they came to embrace studying at the same school as their dad. 

“We didn’t want people thinking we got accepted because our father works here or that we get special treatment,” said David. “If anything, he’s tougher on us than anyone else.”

David and Joey are both graduating from the Doctor of Dental Surgery program at VCU School of Dentistry as participants in the Health Professions Scholarship Program through the Navy. Their commitment to military service will make them the third generation of Navy dentists in their family. Their grandfather served as a Navy dentist. Their father served in the Navy for 30 years before he retired from service and joined as faculty at VCU School of Dentistry in 2015. Additionally, their grandmother was a dental hygienist.

David’s and Joey’s upbringing is similar to many children whose parents served in the military. David was born in Italy, but he lived there less than two years before his father was stationed in Norfolk. Joey was born soon after they arrived back in the U.S. The Navy took their family to Key West, Florida, for four years and then to Cedar Point, North Carolina, for 11 years before their father’s post-military career brought them to the Richmond area. 

“I became interested in dentistry after I shadowed my dad at the clinic at Camp Lejeune,” said David. “That was about 15 years ago, right when they were introducing digital dentistry. I remember thinking it was pretty cool; it was a career where you could give back and help people while making a good living for your family.”

Joey only knew he wanted to work in health care. “Our mom is a physical therapist and I was always drawn to health care,” he said. “I like the relationships that you build with your patients, getting to work with them every day in a way that changes their lives for the better.”

David Russell’s first and last patient at VCU School of Dentistry was his mother, Cris Russell.

Both brothers had a passion for sports. After graduating high school, David took two years off to play junior league hockey, which is a common practice for those wanting to play hockey in college in order to gain skills and maturity.

“I wasn’t good enough to make money, so I needed a back-up plan,” joked David. 

The two-year gap allowed Joey to catch up and they both entered college at the same time. David attended and played hockey at Worcester State University in Massachusetts. Joey’s sport was lacrosse, which he played for a year at Oberlin College in Ohio and for three years at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. 

While they were both fairly certain they wanted to enter military service after graduating, it wasn’t until their sophomore years in college that they decided to pursue dentistry. 

“We shadowed a Navy dentist. She was actually our old babysitter and my dad’s former dental assistant,” said Joey. “She became a dentist through the Navy’s Health Profession Scholarship Program. After that experience, we both decided that’s the path we wanted to take.” 

They applied to both the Army’s and the Navy’s Health Profession Scholarship Program and ended up hearing back from the Navy first. 

“We applied to a bunch of different dental schools so we would have options, but we were hoping to go to VCU,” said David. “Our dad looked at a lot of schools when he decided to leave the Navy and enter into academics. Dad coming to VCU was sort of an endorsement of the philosophy of the school and the quality of the program.”

The military’s Health Professions Scholarship Program is based on a year-for-year commitment to service for education. The program covered David’s and Joey’s tuition and provided a stipend to help with housing and meals. In return, they are committed to a minimum of four years of service after graduation. 

“Probably the most challenging part of dental school is the first two years. Our dad tried to prepare us and said it was like drinking from a firehose. And, boy, was he right,” said Joey. “I think our experience juggling sports and academics in undergrad gave us some of the tools we needed to adapt and manage our time.”

It was also during the first year of dental school when Joey met his future wife, Katie Veltman. 

“My best memory from here will always be meeting Katie,” said Joey. “They divvy you up into groups during the Gross Anatomy course and we happened to get paired up. We’re getting married in Charlottesville in September.”

Katie Veltman stands with Joey, Cris, Al and David Russell in a hallway in the dental school.
From left to right: Katie Veltman stands with Joey, Cris, Al and David Russell.

“One of my fondest memories is having my mom as my first patient. I performed the cleaning while Joey served as the assistant,” said David. “But I also cherish the opportunity to learn from my dad and go to school with my brother. We’re pretty much best friends and we’ll get to look back on this for the rest of our lives.”

Both brothers also point to the impact they have made in patients’ lives while at the school as another highlight of their education, as well as the real-world experience they gained during external rotations at community-based clinics throughout the state as part of the Service Learning program.

“It’s always rewarding when you deliver a big case like a set of dentures that literally changes someone’s life and how they view themselves,” said Joey. “One of the hardest parts about finishing school is ending the relationships with those patients.”

Throughout their time at VCU, they only recall support from their father. 

“Our dad has always been really helpful and gracious. When we felt like we were struggling, he would come in on the weekend. He would help everyone in the lab,” said Joey. “It’s been cool getting to learn from him. He might challenge us a little more than others, but that’s okay.”

“There’s never really been any pressure from him; I think we both put the pressure and expectations on ourselves,” added David. “I don’t think he ever cared what we did professionally. As long as we’re happy, then he’s happy.”

“It has been truly special to have David and Joey at VCU. Watching their struggles with dental school, reminded me of my struggles with dental school. I have had the good fortune to work with them on occasion—maybe not their good fortune, because I always scrutinize their work more than other students so that I don’t appear to show favoritism,” said David and Joey’s Dad, Al Russell. “Rarely does a week go by where a faculty or staff member doesn’t stop me to say what fine young men they are. Their mother, Cris, and I could not be more proud of David and Joey.”

Both David and Joey are pursuing one-year residency programs after they graduate. First, they will attend Officer Development School, a five-week training course for future military officers, and then David will enter an Advanced Education in General Dentistry program at Sewells Point Branch Medical Clinic in Norfolk while Joey will complete a General Practice Residency at the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. After their residencies, they will receive their first orders and begin their four years of service as dental officers in the Navy. 

“It’s exciting because you don’t know where you’re going to go, but you know you have the opportunity to do some really cool things and possibly travel the world while serving your country,” said Joey. 

“We could end up serving on an aircraft carrier or get stationed at a base on the East Coast,” said David. “Wherever I end up, I feel like VCU has prepared me well and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

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