By Molly Pereira, CDA Associate Executive Director
From the Winter 2019 Journal of the Colorado Dental Association
He’s no stranger to the dental community. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find many Colorado dentists who haven’t heard of the name, Dr. Brett Kessler. Depending on which circle you travel, your knowledge of Dr. Kessler could be very different from your colleague’s knowledge. He wears many hats (at least one of them being a helmet) and in October he achieved the greatest hat trick of his life to this point.
- 13, 2018 – Dr. Kessler completes the Ironman World Championship in Kona, HI.
- 21, 2018 – Dr. Kessler achieves 7,305 days / 20 years of sobriety.
- 21, 2018 – Dr. Kessler is elected as the 14th District Trustee at the American Dental Association Meeting and will represent organized dentistry in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Hawaii and Arizona at the national level.
The Race of His Life
The opportunity to compete in the Ironman World Championship is the equivalent of an Olympic dream. You must physically qualify and win the Ironman triathlon lottery for a chance to swim 2.4 miles, ride 112 miles and run 26.2 miles in 17 hours or less in 90-degree heat and nearly 100% humidity.
While most people shy away from this type of “opportunity,” Dr. Kessler dreamt this seemingly impossible dream since 1993, when he registered for his first triathlon on a dare. The dream became a reality when he was selected to participate in the Hawaii Ironman to represent the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and to raise awareness about blood cancers. Rather than having to roll the dice with the Ironman lottery, he was awarded a charity slot with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training (TNT).
“I did an oncology residency after dental school where I treated many patients who were undergoing treatment for various forms of leukemia, lymphoma and other blood related cancers,” Dr. Kessler said. “The chemotherapy was so strong; it would completely wipe out the patient’s immune system. My job was to treat their dental needs prior to them starting chemo. Any infection in their mouths (or any other part of their body) would kill them as they would have no defense. It was an eye-opening time of my life to see my patients on both sides of this.”
After residency, Dr. Kessler moved to Denver in 1999. In 2001, he joined up with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s TNT to meet some new people, train for the Los Angeles Triathlon and contribute to a good cause.
“We collectively raised well over $2M that year,” recalled Dr. Kessler. “It went to fund a research portfolio in Seattle that led to the development of Gleevec—a revolutionary new drug at the time that treated Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML).”
In 2009, just eight years later, a sad twist of fate brought his life chapter full circle. His mom was diagnosed with CML.
“She took Gleevec and other drugs that kept her alive for eight years before her organs failed,” said Dr. Kessler. “The funding for clinical trials came directly from the money that was raised back at the events I was part of in 2001. It kept her alive for several years until she succumbed to the disease in May 2017. The mission of TNT has never meant more to me than it does today.”
On Oct. 13, 2018, after one year of training through all of Colorado’s weather patterns, hiring a coach, learning how to competitively swim again, and persevering through self-doubt, worry and fear, Dr. Kessler arrived at the world championship with his family and friends by his side. For the next 13 hours, 56 minutes and 43 seconds, he methodically attacked each leg of the race, fully knowing that this race was about mental strength and the drive to conquer an impossible goal; his body was just along for the journey and to wear the famous finisher’s medal after the loud speaker boomed, “Brett Kessler, you are an Ironman!”
The Race for His Life
Dr. Kessler is no stranger to overcoming the impossible. Over 20 years ago, he would have been the last person you would believe capable of leading a movement to eradicate blood cancers.
Dr. Kessler is also in long-term recovery from substance use disorder. He started drinking and getting high at 13 years old, but it wasn’t until his last years in college when more dangerous drugs became accessible to him. Despite his frequent use, his grades were good, and he escaped consequence time and again.
Following college, he got into dental school and committed to clean living. He did very well in school, but by the third year, the hard drugs found him again. Following dental school, he got into a GPR at Northwestern University, where he again tried to break free from using drugs. Nine months into the GPR, the drugs found him again.
Despite a move to Michigan, he continued to find convenient excuses to return to Chicago to buy drugs from familiar sources. He hit rock bottom twice. After the first time, he took initiative to contact the Michigan Wellbeing Program but when the voice on the phone told him that he needed to go to rehab, he wasn’t ready to hear that solution and abruptly ended the call. He decided that he could rehabilitate himself, but it wasn’t long until the drugs found him yet again. In October of 1998, he went to Chicago to attend a funeral for his best friend’s mother. While there, Dr. Kessler called his dealer, went on a binge and missed the funeral. That was the defining moment that made him realize what he had become—a drug addict.
At that point, he got help—professional help. He went to meetings, he got counseling, he went to group therapy and he complied with every single step of the recovery process. Recovery didn’t end there either; it is an active commitment and a lifestyle that he embraces today.
“I do something for my recovery every day,” Dr. Kessler said. “If I don’t, my disease is always in the background, waiting for an opportunity to present itself. I attend a lot of recovery meetings and mentor several people who have struggled or are struggling with addiction.”
Dr. Kessler is open about his journey and is committed to helping others who are traveling along the same path. He is the voice who will answer the phone for Concerned Colorado Dentists (720-989-7960). He serves on the Colorado Dental Wellbeing Taskforce (peerassistanceservices.org, 303-369-0039) and the American Dental Association Dental Wellbeing Advisory Committee (success.ada.org/en/wellness, 202-898-2410 or firstname.lastname@example.org). Programs like these have an 80-85% success rate helping people recover from substance abuse. People who try to get help on their own statistically only have a 3-6% rate of success. These programs exist to help practitioners. They provide accountability and coping strategies for stress, and rehabilitation programs geared toward the professional.
I was “graced with sobriety on Oct. 21, 1998,” continued Dr. Kessler. “This was the day that I was freely given a solution to overcome my addiction and my life turned to the good. I became inspired to live each day to the fullest extent. My adventures over the years personally and professionally have given me an opportunity to have a meaningful purpose in my life—one day at a time.”
On Oct. 21, 2018, Dr. Kessler received his second medal in a week. The medallion reads, “To Thine Own Self Be True” and the roman numeral “XX” commemorates 20 years of sobriety.
The Race to Lead the Profession
Because things come in threes, the final stage of the trifecta also occurred on Oct. 21, 2018 at the ADA annual meeting in Honolulu, HI. Dr. Kessler stood in front of the ADA House of Delegates and addressed the 483-person national governing body as a candidate running for a seat on the ADA Board of Trustees, representing the 14th District.
“I have a track record of effective leadership at all three levels of the tripartite,” Dr. Kessler said. “I currently serve as vice chair of the Council on Dental Benefit Programs. I decided to run for trustee because I wish to see many of the projects that I am intimately involved with come to fruition.”
The race was tight, starting with four candidates and ultimately coming down to two impressive and worthy dentists: Dr. Kessler and Dr. Rhett Murray—both CDA past presidents involved at the national level, both strong ambassadors of organized dentistry and both unequivocally committed to the future of the dental profession.
In the end, Dr. Kessler was elected as the ADA 14th District trustee. He will represent the region of states that include Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. His four-year term will begin in September 2019.
“I have faced the challenges in my life and turned them into opportunities,” Dr. Kessler said. “I am someone who is never satisfied with the status quo. I think the ADA is on a good track and I can’t wait to see how far we can push things forward toward increased relevance and effectiveness. The profession of dentistry, and all of healthcare, is in flux. I hope I can provide a fresh voice that can help drive a bright future for the profession and the communities that we serve.”