Patients of Steven K. Kousournas quickly learn two things about the East Hartford dentist.
One, he is earnest about his work, and two, he can't carry a tune in a bucket. He's the kind of dentist your parents probably had, someone you'd invite to graduations, weddings, family gatherings. (This, even though he once made me late to a meeting because the filling he was building just didn't feel right to him. And he hummed off-key the whole time.)
There's probably a Greek word to describe him, but for the rest of us, he's a mensch, a good guy. And he tells about his recent dark night of the soul as an object lesson.
Kousournas came from Greece to a cold-water flat in Hartford in 1969 with his parents and sister. He was 8; the family carried an English dictionary in a trunk packed with olive oil they feared they'd miss in their new country.
Young Steve wasn't the only immigrant at Burns School. His class was crowded with Italians, Portuguese and other Greeks. His father worked two, sometimes three jobs. A tailor by trade, the elder Kousournas never talked about the sacrifices he and his wife made to give their children a better opportunity. Their move to America - learning English, becoming citizens - was their leap of faith.
Kousournas did so well in school that his teachers encouraged him to be a doctor. His sophomore year in high school, he latched onto dentistry. He went to college, then to dental school (while setting sales records at a men's clothing shop at Westfarms Mall). His parents bought a house in East Hartford, and they renovated the downstairs for their son's dental office. He took over the mortgage, and for a while, his sister worked the front desk.
He set about building the business. He met his wife, Maria, while looking for another receptionist. He called her about the job; she was happy where she was but called him back just to talk. It took him a year to realize she was the woman for him, and if you've ever met Maria, who is half-Greek, you wonder what took him so long.
In his defense, he was putting his immigrant's can-do energy toward advertising, expanding and bringing in more patients. Maria took over the front desk and brought a gentle energy to the go-go drive of her new husband. They had a daughter, Rena, now 12, a studious and artistic girl who grew up in the office. Along came Evi, the middle child, now 4, followed by Kosta, now 9 months, named for his grandfather, the hard-working tailor.
But a few months ago, Kousournas found himself at one of those crossroads no one can warn you about. Those weekends eaten up with lab work started to weigh on him. He always told his staff that family comes first. A beloved dental technician had one girl, then left to stay home with her second. A new dental technician wanted more hours, but if he gave her more hours, he'd have to take on more patients, giving him less time with his family.
He kept coming back to this: You can't buy time. A smaller practice would afford him time.
It's a hard decision, when you're the son of immigrant parents who instilled in you the notion that you work hard, and then you take on more work just because. But he took a deep breath and decided not to hire another dental technician. He would allow the practice to take care of itself. He wouldn't advertise. He'd still see patients, but not at his former frenetic pace. He'd watch his son grow and wonder about what he'd missed with his daughters.
And so that is what he's done. But let's be honest: The decision still bugs him a little, but he attended a friend's wedding recently with Rena, the 12-year-old, and while guests watched a video of the bride and groom growing up apart and then coming together, he welled up a little. Rena noticed and asked, "Daddy, are you thinking of me?"
At first he said no. And then he said yes. And then he knew he'd made the right decision. The practice, he says, will always be there. You can't buy time. This is his leap of faith.