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When Healing Runs in the Family!

Meet Some Multi-Generation Healers

“I’ll never be a teacher!” I proclaimed as a high school senior. “My mom teaches.” My attitude was rebellious and my spirit defiant. I majored in psychology as an undergraduate and ignored my calling, according to my college English professor. After graduating, I worked briefly as an addiction counselor before earning an MA in human resources. When I was finished trying to prove a point, I took and passed the praxis, earned my teaching license, and became an educator – just like my mom.

This year marks my sixteenth in the classroom, and my mom has been retired for almost that long. Still, she is regularly reminded of those days and the way she affected her students. Just recently, we were eating lunch at a restaurant in Smithfield, and an employee recognized my mom and approached our table. “You may not remember me, Mrs. Seeley, but I was in your English class. I just really appreciate the stories you read with us and that you helped me write and speak more professionally,” the woman said.

That wasn’t the first time I’ve been with my mom when she ran into a former student. It has happened at the mall, movie theaters, and coffee shops. One time, I watched a teenage boy hang out of a car window so my mom would see him. “Mrs. Seeley! Remember me-e-e-e-e?” His voice trailed down Highway 460 as the car pulled out of the gas station.

I have seen the positive impact my mom has had on younger generations as an educator, and I am so grateful to be in a profession that allows me to contribute to the world in a meaningful way. Watching family members – like the doctors, nurses, and dentists I interviewed for this story – work in a field that brings them joy and helps others is a beautiful thing for a child to witness. Quite obviously – and fortunately, for all of us – careers and passions can be contagious!

Lillie Robinson Bennett, MD and son, Richard Bennett, MD

Like Mother, Like Son 

Richard Bennett, MD, a Richmond-area pediatrician, remembers walking into his mom’s workplace as a young boy and watching her interact with patients. “Those children were so excited to see my mom, to show off their tricks, and share their grades and all their milestones,” Richard says. “I got to see my mom make a difference every day. She helped patients medically, but she also helped put them on the right track with their lives. I knew then that this was the field for me.”

When Richard was a child, the only downfall of his mother being a pediatrician was that he had to share her with her patients. “When you have something good, you want all of it,” Richard says, in reference to his mom’s mothering skills. “She had to work hard, and we wanted her home all the time.”

Since 2002, Richard has been practicing pediatrics with and for his mother, Lillie Robinson Bennett, MD. “She is the boss, the original, and I am a junior partner,” Richard says. “We often discuss different cases and share stories and things we’ve learned. We aren’t in the same office each day, but we are in constant communication.”

Like his mother did and still does, Richard also stays busy with his patients and the practice. So understandably, finding a balance between professional and family life can be challenging. “I remember my son popping into the basement one Saturday while I was doing some work. The third time he popped in, I put my laptop down. He just wanted to spend some time with me,” Richard says. “I can always work, and I can always play golf, but my son will only let me kiss him all over the face for a short time.”

Lillie and Richard operate two pediatric offices in the Richmond area: on Chamberlayne Avenue and on North 28th Street. The doctor says she loves everything about being a physician, especially the patient interaction. “I enjoy seeing my patients when they are well and seeing them get well when they are sick,” Lillie says. “I absolutely love what I do. It is so rewarding to see them mature and be their best possible person.”

While Lillie admits that she did hope one of her children would go into medicine, it was far more important to her that they pursue their own passions. In this instance, those two desires merged nicely. “I’m very proud of the doctor that my son is – kind, caring, hardworking, and compassionate,” Lillie says. “But I am even prouder of the man that he has become.” 

Josh Wong, Dennis Wong, Brandon Wong, and Krysten Herrero are all smiles.

Putting Smiles First

If ever there were a true family practice, it’s the Wong family of Virginia Family Dentistry in Richmond. Dennis Wong, DDS, is a graduate of UVA who planned to pursue a career in pediatrics. But after being placed as an orderly in oncology, he quickly realized the hospital setting was not for him and enrolled in graduate school at the VCU School of Dentistry.

Dennis lived in Hong Kong from 1962 to 1974 and describes dentistry at that time and in that place as primitive. Now at his office in Atlee, his goals are to make sure patients are comfortable and to develop relationships with them. “Dentistry is different from other medical professions. Patients spend anywhere from an hour to two hours in the office. They talk about their lives, and you really get to know them,” Dennis says.

Among the employees, the practice includes Dennis’s older son, daughter-in-law, and nephew. Additionally, Dennis’s younger son, Brycen, recently completed dental school and has enlisted with the Army as a dentist for the next four years. All of them credit the patriarch of the family, Dennis, for their careers in dentistry.

Joshua Wong, DDS, practices at Virginia Family Dentistry’s Chester location, and Josh’s childhood dentist was, you guessed it, Uncle Dennis. “I attributed his personality to his profession,” Josh says. “I wanted to have a part in helping people improve their smiles and ultimately, their lives.” He recognizes that many patients are embarrassed by their dental issues and have a sense of shame for letting their dental health deteriorate. “I want to help them get to an area of good health,” Josh says. “There is so much that improves when dental health
is addressed.”

Brandon Wong, DMD, Dennis’s older son, has been practicing for three years, and is currently at the Brandermill office. He is quick to name his father as his source of inspiration. “He is truly an amazing dentist, and I know with 100 percent certainty that he wants to do what’s best for his patients,” Brandon says. “He is such a perfectionist and an artist, and his patients are truly lucky to have someone so skilled and empathetic.”

Brandon enjoys the artistic side of dentistry, the advancements, and the daily challenges. He knew this was the right area for him when he shadowed dental professionals in college. “I got to see behind the scenes. As a patient, you have no idea what’s going on. You only see the end result,” Brandon says. “It was amazing to see all the work and detail that goes into a procedure.”

Brandon’s wife, Krysten Herrero, DMD, has practiced dentistry for three-and-a-half years and is at the New Kent office. Krysten discovered her love for helping people in this capacity when she was on a medical mission to Ecuador. 

When it comes to excelling in one’s profession, Brandon says it’s vital to have someone who encourages you along the way. “I truly believe this is so important,” he says. “My wife is constantly encouraging me to be the best dentist – and person – I can be.”

Krysten’s parents aren’t in the medical field, but they inspire her to be the best she can be. “They sacrificed a lot so that I could have the opportunities to become the doctor I am today. I am so grateful for them,” she says. “And it would be fun if my son decides to be a dentist, since both of his parents, his grandfather, and his uncle are,” she says, “but if he wants to help people in another way, I’m totally fine with that as well.” 

Julie, Donna, and Kristen count on each other for insight about the nursing vocation. Donna is shown (inset above) with the woman who started it all, her grandmother Ruth Hirschberg.

Legacy of Nursing

Donna Palmer, RN, the clinical coordinator at the pediatric infusion center at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, fully embraced her familial influence from the get-go. A nurse for thirty-two years, Donna has known since she was three that nursing was the field for her. 

Donna’s source of inspiration was her grandmother Ruth Hirschberg. “I remember her in her white uniform, telling me stories about the children in the hospital,” Donna says. “Her eyes would light up as she talked about her patients.”

Donna’s grandmother was thrilled that her granddaughter wanted to follow in her footsteps. From the start, she encouraged Donna to get a bachelor’s degree in nursing so she would have many options. “I remember her as a career woman – very driven and strong. It was a time when most women stayed at home, so I really admired her work ethic,” Donna says.

Earlier in her career, Donna had the opportunity to work at VCU’s Brook Road campus for eight years. “Not only was the building gorgeous, but I walked down the same halls my grandmother walked down years before. It was very meaningful,” she says.

Of all of her responsibilities, patient care is what Donna truly loves. She has the privilege of comforting children who are anxious and afraid of getting their IVs. She also forms long-lasting relationships with many of them because they are returning to the infusion center on a regular basis. “Many don’t want to leave until they’ve given some of the nurses a hug,” she says. “One little girl who comes in each week says that Thursdays are her favorite days because she gets to see us.”

Although Donna is only a few years away from retirement, she cannot imagine not caring for children in this capacity. “I love my work, my team, and my patients,” she says. “I have a nice blend of bedside work and leadership responsibilities. I’m very satisfied.”

The family call to nursing didn’t stop at Donna’s generation. Her twin daughters, Kristen and Julie, both went into pediatric nursing and currently are working in the NICU at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU. “I grew up idolizing my mom and always wanted to follow in her footsteps and become a pediatric nurse,” Kristen says. “My dream became a reality when I graduated and accepted my first nursing job on the pediatrics floor at VCU. I’ve never looked back!”

Kristen is grateful to have a career where she knows she is making a difference. “Simply putting a smile on a child’s face or easing a parent’s fears is such an indescribable feeling,” she says. She is especially thankful for her mom when the hard days come around. “It can be difficult to explain the details of your job to someone who isn’t a medical professional,” Kristen says. “It has been such a blessing having a mom we [Kristen and Julie] can confide in after a tough shift. She gives great advice and knows exactly how to help us continue to be the best versions of ourselves in and out of the workplace.” 

Melissa Face is the author of “I Love You More Than Coffee,” an essay collection for parents who love coffee a lot and their kids ... a little more. She lives in Prince George with her husband and two children and teaches at the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School. Read more at
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