Marjorie Brennan, MD, is a physician specializing in pediatric anesthesiology at Children’s National Medical Center and an assistant professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at The George Washington University. A nationally known speaker on issues of health equity in the developing world, she is the founder and director of the JDT Foundation, which addresses educational and environmental issues in Haiti.
Marjorie and her husband Michael are proud Potomac parents: son Peter ’14 is now a student at Elon University; daughter Madeleine is a junior; and son William is in the sixth grade. A member of Potomac’s Board of Trustees since 2010, Marjorie was named chair of the board in July 2015.
We recently sat down for a chat, to learn more about this charismatic leader who is passionate about The Potomac School’s success.
Q. Let’s start at the beginning. Tell us about your background and how you became a physician.
A. I grew up in Brooklyn. My mother was a biochemist whose work involved developing vaccines. I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a doctor, largely because she was such a terrific role model.
We moved to Michigan when I was in ninth grade. When it came time for college, I (like many young people) was fairly eager to get away from home, so I mostly looked at East Coast schools. The only Midwestern school I applied to was the University of Michigan, because they had an integrated pre-med/medical program that sounded really interesting. And that’s where I ended up!
The great thing about that program was that it eliminated the “pressure cooker” element that so many undergraduates preparing for medical school experience. We had already been accepted to med school, so the sense of dog-eat-dog competition just wasn’t there. Instead, we were encouraged to focus not only on our academic preparation but also on bigger issues, like social responsibility, ethics, and service. As students, we participated in a lot of service experiences, and that was formative for me.
Q. How did you settle on pediatric anesthesiology?A. Well, I find anesthesiology fascinating. It’s actually kind of like aviation: In both fields, you are working to mitigate an activity that is inherently risky. Both rely on detailed procedures and checklists, but both also require the ability to respond to highly individualized situations. As to why pediatrics? I think I always knew that I would work with children.
Q. You mentioned service. Would you describe some of your service activities?
A. I moved to Chicago in 1992, to work at Shriners Hospital for Children. That was shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A group of colleagues and I soon had an opportunity to participate in a partnership with Vilnius University Children’s Hospital, in the fledgling country of Lithuania.
That first trip was eye-opening! At that time, the Soviet states really had Third World medicine, and I’m not sure we were prepared for that. The facilities in Vilnius were poor; they had limited equipment and medications. They were working very hard, but they needed a lot of help. Also, my colleagues and I didn’t see much compassion reflected in the way patients were dealt with there. So as we helped to improve their systems, we also tried to effect a culture shift, impressing upon the doctors, nurses, and support staff the importance of empathy when dealing with vulnerable people.
I’ve always been interested in health-system building, so I was excited about this opportunity to create meaningful change. The process would clearly take some time, and I wanted to help it unfold. So I went back to Vilnius every six months for the next five years. I formed great relationships there and found the experience profoundly rewarding.
Then I had my first child and decided that I would only work part-time for a while, so that I could focus on raising my family. Along the way, we moved to DC, and two more children arrived. In addition to my medical practice, I became very involved with the kids’ school – Potomac – serving first as a class parent, then as parent rep, chair of the Parent Association, chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, and, eventually, a member of the Board of Trustees.
So I ended up taking a 10-year hiatus from service work. I thought it wouldn’t be fair to my children (or my husband, who is also a physician) for me to disappear for extended periods, flying off to some foreign country. But finally, when my kids were a little older, I had a kind of epiphany. I realized, “It’s reasonable for them to make this sacrifice – which is a rather small one, after all. It’s reasonable for them to do without Mom for one week a year, so that I can model for them what a commitment to service entails.”
The next opportunity that presented itself was in Haiti. My colleagues and I were initially scheduled to travel there in February 2010, but the earthquake hit in January, so we went sooner than originally planned. We stayed for 10 days that first time, working at Sacre Couer Hospital in Milot, in the northern part of the country. The people there are in great need, and places like Sacre Couer provide essential care with few resources. I have gone back at least once a year since that initial trip; in addition to working with the hospital, I founded and now direct the JDT Foundation, which focuses on addressing environmental and educational issues in Haiti.
It’s important to understand that service – even in the poorest countries – isn’t about “swooping in and saving the world.” It’s about building relationships and trust over time. When you do that, you are in a better position to create lasting, positive change.
Finally, I am also committed to serving closer to home. There’s a lot of economic disparity right here in the United States. One thing I do is volunteer to give vaccinations in DC charter schools. And now I’m enrolled in GW’s Master of Public Health program, developing skills that will enable me to have a greater impact, both at home and abroad.
Q. That is incredibly impressive. Shifting gears, can you tell us more about your connection to Potomac? How did you choose this school for your children?
A. When we moved to the DC area, we asked a lot of people, “What’s the best school?” and “Potomac” was an answer that we heard again and again. We did our research and visited the campus. It was a fairly easy choice for us.
I have been grateful to be a part of this community ever since! Potomac has amazing students and caring, involved parents. We have outstanding teachers who are deeply invested in our children’s success. We have dedicated staff and an able administration led by John Kowalik.
You know, I was involved with the search when John was hired, and I cannot tell you how impressed we were with him. It was immediately clear that he was the real deal – a leader of incredible vision and clarity of purpose and a person of integrity and true humility. John is a great role model for our students, faculty, and administration, and his leadership is a tremendous asset for our school.
Q. How would you describe the value of a Potomac education?
A. Well, I enrolled my own children here for a number of reasons. There is the academic rigor and the emphasis on excellent teaching. There is the pervasive sense of joy in learning. And there is a special kind of competition that happens here: It tends to be competition against oneself rather than others. Potomac’s ethos is about striving to be your best, rather than trying to best someone else.
Above all, Potomac provides an education that makes a difference in the long run. We see it in our graduates: They use the knowledge and skills that they gained in school to help solve intractable problems and create positive change.
Q. What are the qualities of this school that kept you connected and made you want to take on a leadership role?
A. Potomac is a community of trust. Walk into the Upper School around lunchtime, and you will see dozens of backpacks and bags left unattended in the Commons while students eat. If you think about it, that’s extraordinary – to have a school culture where everyone feels safe enough to put their belongings down and know that they will be respected.
Potomac is also a community of kindness. My own children have benefited from this, and I have observed it often. Sometimes, at admission events, I have a chance to talk with parents whose children will be coming in as 4th, 7th, or 9th graders. These parents have concerns: “Will my child be welcome? Will he or she make friends?” I confidently assure them that they have nothing to worry about. The students and teachers at Potomac are remarkably kind, gracious, and welcoming. This is a place where everyone is valued and seen as an integral part of the whole.
A fantastic school that’s on an upward trajectory – who wouldn’t want to be part of that?
A fantastic school that’s on an upward trajectory – who wouldn’t want to be part of that?
Q. It’s been noted that your appointment represents a milestone: You are the first person of color to serve as chair of the Board of Trustees. What are your thoughts about diversity at Potomac?
A. Diversity is important because different perspectives enrich the learning environment for everyone. But I am interested in having deeper conversations about what “diversity” means for us. There are affluent families of every race and ethnic group – families that can afford privileges like a Potomac education. And our student body reflects this. But are we doing enough to seek out and enroll qualified and deserving students – of any race or ethnicity – whose families have less financial means? With nearly $5 million of our annual budget directed to scholarships each year, it’s clear that we are making a serious effort in this area. But if we believe that socio-economic diversity helps to ensure a learning community that is not limited in its scope, this is an area that merits our continued attention.
Q. Finally, tell us about the board’s role and how this particular Board of Trustees functions.
A. Trustees provide financial stewardship and help shape an institution’s long-term vision. To fulfill these roles successfully, we need to be well informed about all aspects of the school’s operations, and we need to understand how effective governance works.
In the past few years, Potomac’s board has undertaken an intentional effort to professionalize our work and strengthen our ability to serve the school. We have focused on board development, hearing from outside speakers, discussing case studies, and learning everything we can about Potomac itself. We put an orientation program in place to help new trustees get up to speed quickly. Above all, I think, we have worked hard to be inclusive – to be a board where all perspectives are heard, all voices respected.
Potomac’s trustees are highly accomplished individuals from a variety of fields: business, government, the arts, the nonprofit sector. They bring a wealth of experience and good judgment to the table. I am honored to work with this incredibly talented and committed group of people, and I believe that we are in an excellent position to help this amazing school accomplish even greater things in the future.