Dirk Fleishman, DDS and John Zalesky, DMD
Long before Dr. Fleischman was a dentist, he had a talk with his college advisor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook that would change the lives of countless future dental professionals. But this conversation was not the supportive kind that one would expect from a person in such a leadership position. The university official actually attempted to discourage Dr. Fleischman from pursuing a career in medicine or dentistry.
“This is a quote,” he said, “Fleischman, you don’t have what it takes to be a doctor. Don’t bother applying to any professional program because you’ll never get accepted.” Dr. Fleischman couldn’t believe what he had heard from his academic advisor.
Those two sentences sparked Dr. Fleischman’s sense of determination, and the former Stony Brook hockey player embarked on a path that would lead him to Howard University College of Dentistry, where he graduated at the top of his class, and a lengthy and fruitful career practicing general dentistry in South Florida.
As the story goes, Dr. Fleischman opened his first office in Miami, Florida in 1983. A modest affair that grew into something much bigger than even Dr. Fleischman could have imagined. Looking back, Dr. Fleischman remembers another poignant conversation that he had in a leadership role. Dr. Thomas Jeter, who first crossed Dr. Fleischman’s path as his oral surgery professor at Howard University College of Dentistry’s Department of Oral Surgery and who eventually became the school’s Dean of Admissions. This relationship was lifelong until Dr. Jeter passed away about eight years ago. Dr. Jeter confidently informed Dr. Fleischman that he would one day teach. This was something that Dr. Fleischman had never considered. To this, Dr. Fleischman responded to his mentor, “Seriously? I’m no teacher!” But as Dr. Fleischman kept moving forward in his career, he heard his mentor’s voice telling him, “You’re a natural.” As the years went by Dr. Fleischman realized that teaching was actually something he could do, and moreover, wanted to do. Even as a seasoned professional, he still wanted to make his mentor proud. It was apparent to Dr. Fleischman that he deeply wished to pay it forward and mentor future dentists in the way Dr. Jeter had mentored him.
Dr. Jeter wasn’t the only mentor who impacted Dr. Fleischman in those early days. He also recalled longtime office manager Mary Frame, who convinced him to build his own dental office building in Miami when the original practice needed more room. “She was a wonderful inspiration for me, and taught me a lot about life and business,” Dr. Fleischman said about Frame, who retired after 15 years with Dr. Fleischman’s practice at 81 years young. When the practice was outgrowing its space in a shopping center, and the owners didn’t want to provide a larger space at a reasonable rate, Mary came back from lunch one day and informed her boss, “I found us a piece of land. We are moving out and building our own dental office building, and will control our destiny from now on.”
The new dental office building, with nine operatories, was opened February of 1990, where Dr. Fleischman’s practice remained until he sold his practice and building in December, 2013 and semi-retired.
As more and more patients came through Dr. Fleischman’s office, the daughter of one of his patients came to him asking if she could shadow him. She explained that her college pre-dental advisor, who was a dentist that she was currently shadowing, essentially relegated her to filing papers. This did not sit well with either her or Dr. Fleischman. Dr. Fleischman informed the student, “If you come to my office, you are going to be chairside with me; I don’t believe in long-distance dentistry.” With patient consent, Dr. Fleischman let her hold his hand while he removed decay from a tooth. He taught her dental nomenclature. He allowed her to drill on already extracted teeth in the hope that she could get more hands-on experience and a better understanding of what dentistry is all about. The experience was amazing for both mentor and mentee. “That really opened the flood gates,” Dr. Fleischman stated with a laugh. As more and more pre-dental students crossed Dr. Fleischman’s professional threshold to seek his counsel and mentorship, he decided to formalize the process even more and, in 2002, he established a dental mentoring program entitled the South Florida Intergenerational Study Club. Its mission was “to bridge the gap between experienced dental professionals today and future dental professionals through mutual learning and mentorship.”
At the time, Dr. Fleischman was a full-time dental practitioner and donated his time working as the team dentist for the Florida Panthers NHL hockey team, working with the University of Miami and Florida State University’s sports teams, and working with dental students at Nova Southeastern College of Dental Medicine. Young, would-be dentists came out of the wood work to seek Dr. Fleischman’s mentorship and he worked tirelessly to not only teach them the finer points of the business of dentistry but also to help them get into the right programs that would further their dental careers in the best way possible. That happened both chairside and at regular dinner meetings that Dr. Fleischman would host at his home. As the number of students increased, these working dinners evolved into largescale dental dinner functions that included pre-dental undergraduate students, dental students, dental faculty from Nova Southeastern University, and even a few interested high school seniors. Later functions saw the addition of dental specialists in the community who wished to help mentor students interested in specializing. “It just developed into this wonderful thing that was a pipeline for Nova dental school. I was able to recommend qualified students to the school. I was able to connect first year students with upperclassmen, and I was able to help graduating dentists fell more informed about and supported in their next steps.”
In 2007, Dr. Fleischman began employing young dental associates into his practice and accepted a part-time clinical assistant professorship at Nova, to carry his teaching and passion for dentistry and mentorship to the clinic floor. “I am so proud of the fact that all of the kids that I have helped along the way have been accepted into both dental schools and post-graduate dental residency programs. I only ask that they don’t forget where they came from and that they pay it forward when asked for guidance in the future.
At Nova Southeastern dental school, Dr. Fleischman connected with many students. One in particular was John Zalesky, who he continues to mentor today. John was in his third year at Nova and Dr. Fleischman was leading a course on cosmetic dentistry when he promised to treat to dinner any of the students who achieved and “A” in the class. As a hungry 20-something with student loans, Zalesky had some extra motivation. “A free dinner is nice when you’re a student,” the now “Dr. Zalesky” joked.” That was the beginning of a lifelong relationship. Dr. Zalesky would have dinner with Dr. Fleischman twice a week, not only picking his brain about dentistry, but talking about life in general. The things that dental school really doesn’t cover. “It really has shaped me as a person,” said Dr. Zalesky, a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University and Nova Southeastern College of Dental Medicine. “I appreciated the fact that I had seen what Dr. Fleischman had done with his career in Miami and that he helped me understand things when he went to sell his practice. We had frequent dinners at his house to discuss what to look for when you’re selling a practice.” This has always been Dr. Fleischman’s goal; to give future dentists an understanding of the big picture and to be a true mentor. “Dr. Fleischman became my second father and he considers me the son he never had, as he has three daughters,” Dr. Zalesky says with a laugh. “I was very lucky. My other classmates didn’t have a Dr. Fleischman in their lives. At dinner, we’d talk about dental stuff, but we’d also talk about where I wanted to go in my career and how to get there. They don’t teach you this in dental school. He allowed me to see a different side of dentistry.”
Now, Dr. Fleischman and Dr. Zalesky are working closely in Colorado, where Dr. Fleischman and his wife and youngest daughter moved in 2014. The mentor is now a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine and the mentee has become the Chief Resident of the General Practice Residency Program at the same location, after completing a year of general practice residency at Denver Health, Denver, Colorado.
Dr. Zalesky credits University of Colorado’s Director of General Practice Residency, Dr. Robert Skoretz, for helping him navigate his current role where he focuses on implants and prosthodontics. And while Drs. Fleischman and Zalesky have plans to go into practice together once Dr. Zalesky’s residency is completed, Dr. Fleischman says he will never give up his teaching and will both teach and be the business side of the future practice. Dr. Zalesky is also taking a page out of Dr. Fleischman’s book and now mentoring his younger colleagues. “I feel like I can pass some of these lessons on to some of my fellow students and co-residents,” says Dr. Zalesky, who aims to own a multi-specialty practice with his mentor that can handle any dental need. “Even though I am not out of school for that long and don’t have that much experience, I feel like I can already pass on some of this experience to my co-residents and dental students to help them as much as I can to realize the importance of having a mentor.”
Seeing Dr. Zalesky take on the role of mentor so early in his career is fulfilling for Dr. Fleischman, who isn’t finished guiding future dental professionals. In addition to Dr. Zalesky, Dr. Fleischman is proud to have four other former students who are now Nova Southeastern dental graduates attending the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine’s Orthodontic and General Practice residency programs. “For someone who was told that he’d never get into dental school to be able to have a successful career, to be able to teach in two dental schools, and to be able to help kids get into dental schools and residency programs as well as start their careers, is a tremendous source of pride,” Dr. Fleischman asserted. “It feels so special. I love the fact that I can watch today’s doctors grow up in front of my eyes and know that I had a small part in their professional success. This is what I am most proud of in my career – paying it forward as my mentor did for me. It gives me so much satisfaction knowing I can leave this earth a better place than when I entered it.”