Britt: ‘I’ve grown along with the city’

Published 9:52 pm Monday, September 23, 2019

The art collection of Dr. L.D. Britt is filled with people in impoverished settings — someone sitting on a dock, taking care of the fields, hoeing and plowing.

It speaks to him.

“It tells me how fortunate I am,” Britt said, “and how fortunate you are. Sometimes the best things in life are simple. Artwork has helped me with that. It’s not perfect, but I’m still learning.”

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Britt has myriad accomplishments that cannot easily be summarized, but he said they do not mean anything “if you are not of value.”

His own value, stemming from those accomplishments, will be honored Thursday at the Suffolk Center for the Cultural Arts as the Suffolk and North Suffolk Rotary Clubs present Britt with their 2019 First Citizen award. Proceeds from the event are donated to charitable organizations.

“I’ve grown along with the city, so we’ve grown together over the years,” Britt said. “This is a tremendous honor. You can’t replace or duplicate being honored by your own city.”

The surgeon who was born in Suffolk to parents Claretta White Britt and Vandious Britt on June 28, 1951, graduated as valedictorian of his class at age 16 at Booker T. Washington High School in 1968 before graduating from the University of Virginia, Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, advancing through a storied career in medicine.

He said it was the example that his parents set that most shaped his character.

“(My mother) had an unbelievable work ethic,” Britt said. “My father had an unbelievable work ethic. They focused on their children, and they gave us their work ethic, and they gave us the commitment to do what’s right.”

During every presentation he gives, Britt begins with a slide of a railroad track that runs through Suffolk, saying it helps keep him grounded.

“It was a divided city, but it evolved from that point,” Britt said. “It was meaningful to me. It gave me my roots. It. became sort of a positive reflection. It’s a real anchor. I will not forget my roots.”

And though Britt is well-renowned in the medical world, Mayor Linda Johnson notes that many people in the city do not know he is famous.

“He just commands such respect,” Johnson said. “He is a lesson in how to be human, how to be real and how to get things done, and how you are in this world and what you’re here for.”

In her letter nominating Britt for the award, Johnson said what distinguishes Britt the most is his passion for giving back to the community through teaching.

Johnson noted how he has had numerous opportunities to leave the Suffolk region, but he hasn’t and has chosen “to stay and serve a community that he calls home.”

Britt said that was for a reason.

“I came back to learn the ropes, and do what I could for Suffolk and all of Hampton Roads, but particularly Suffolk,” Britt said. “I wanted to be part of the benefit. I wanted to be part of the solution. I made a lot of friends, and the rest is history.”

Johnson said she thought back to when she first met Britt at a scholarship dinner.

“Literally, he doesn’t like to have the spotlight on him, but he took the air right out of the room,” Johnson said. “He is that kind of personality.”

In particular, Johnson said she was struck earlier this year when Britt spoke at the 2019 Suffolk Police Department Law Enforcement Memorial Service. Johnson recalled that Britt spoke of people telling him that he saves lives because he is a trauma surgeon. Pointing to the law enforcement officers in the room, he said they were the ones saving lives, not him.

“In my profession, surgeons like to say ‘We’re in a profession where we have higher stakes — there’s no other profession that has stakes this high,’ and I say you’re wrong,” Britt said the service. “You’re absolutely wrong. The profession where the stakes are the highest … is being a law enforcement officer, where you put your life on the line.”

Britt’s career ascended after he completed his degree programs, completing his medical internship and assistant residency in the department of surgery at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, additional studies at the W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center in Lake Placid, N.Y.

He did a two-year research fellowship, a residency at the University Hospital and Cook County Hospital in Chicago and, after completing a clinical fellowship at the Maryland Institute of Emergency Medical Service Systems, he came to Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1987 as its chief of the trauma division. He also worked as the medical director of the Shock Trauma Center at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and was a member of the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters’ surgical staff.

In 1994, Britt became the first African American in the United States to be awarded an endowed chair in surgery at a major American medical school when he was appointed as the Henry Ford endowed chair of the Department of Surgery at EVMS.

His listing of accomplishments fills reams of paper, but he said those things mean nothing if he hasn’t made a difference in the lives of people in Suffolk and in Hampton Roads.

Johnson noted his passion to teach a new generation of doctors, but also his passion to remain rooted in Suffolk. Just one of many examples of that is seeing patients in Suffolk every Tuesday pro bono, something he negotiated with EVMS when he was hired there.

“His commitment to the area is evidenced by the continued operation of his scholarship fund, encouraging young people to get into medicine as a way of giving back to society,” Johnson wrote. “For no matter where he is in the world, Dr. L.D. Britt steadfastly prides himself on his roots. Those roots are something he will not allow himself to forget, because they are what continues to foster his drive to make the streets of Suffolk healthy for all.”

He stops to speak to everyone, and, Johnson said, is a gift to anyone who gets to spend time with him. But she said Britt has a way of making it seem just the opposite.

“When you’re talking to him, you never feel like he’s in a hurry,” Johnson said.

Britt hasn’t stopped learning despite advancing in his career, but he doesn’t try to call attention to himself in spite of his accomplishments.

Johnson said he is a lesson in how to be human, how to be real and how to get things done. In other words, she said, he is a legacy.

“It’s OK with him if everybody doesn’t know him,” Johnson said. “He’s so humble and genuine and warm, and if you’re fortunate enough to cross his path in life, you’re the fortunate one. You’re the blessed one.”

Dr. L.D. Britt will be honored Thursday as the First Citizen by the Suffolk and North Suffolk Rotary Clubs. The event will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts, 110 W. Finney Ave. Tickets are $50 and are available at the door.