Dr. Joel Gould is used to being surrounded by beautiful women. The local dentist is a regular contributor to Pageantry magazine (as “The Smile Dr.”), and has seen inside the mouths of various supermodels and celebrities.
But it wasn’t until Gould, 48, started volunteering at Safe Passage, a program helping survivors of domestic violence in the San Fernando Valley, that he experienced the beauty of a smile that comes from deep inside a women’s heart.
“When I first met Maria, she was engaging and articulate, but she was hiding in the shadows because she didn’t have a smile,” Gould said.
Maria DiGiovanni, 50, a survivor of two abusive husbands, hadn’t been to a dentist in 20 years. She had gum disease and pain from a past broken jaw, and the few teeth remaining in her mouth were in such bad shape that she only ate soft, mushy food for fear that they might fall out.
“My teeth gave me the excuse to isolate myself. I was afraid to go out.” DiGiovanni said.
So Gould went to work. He did a full mouth reconstruction — about $40,000 worth of dental work — restoring every tooth, giving her the ability to chew and smile again.
“This was the last piece of the puzzle of her life. It makes me feel great to see her smile,” Gould said. “I have had a really good life, and this type of violence was very tough and foreign to me. I can’t think of any reason why I wouldn’t want to use my skills and experience as a cosmetic dentist to help people who couldn’t do it for themselves.”
Working with Safe Passage over the past two years, Gould has been an integral part of transforming the lives of 11 women, giving them a face with a smile — and a new future.
Trish Steele, 64, a survivor of childhood abuse, former beauty pageant winner and model, is the founder and CEO of Safe Passage. She said Gould never declines to help a woman in need.
“It brings so much joy to my heart to see a man with so much compassion,” she said.
Over the past 15 years, the Valley-based Safe Passage has served more than 1,700 domestically abused women and children on the journey of reclaiming their lives. It offers counseling and workshops in job-skill training and confidence building, seeks out housing, and helps provide total life makeovers that can include cosmetic work on the face and teeth.
“So many women are hurting and hiding the scars of abuse, just like I did. So, I created a safe haven and a passage to help them build self-confidence so that they aren’t just hopping from one shelter to another, but are learning how to take care of themselves for a new and better life,” Steele said.
DiGiovanni is the perfect success story. Now she is a certified life coach working with women, helping them to become accountable for reaching their own personal goals.
“He [Gould] has given me the ability to do what I have to do with more confidence. I have the ability to love myself again without any shame,” DiGiovanni said.
Gould — who grew up in a traditional Conservative Jewish home in the Canadian city of Winnipeg — had parents who were very involved in community volunteer work, and he carries on their spirit of helping others. His first job out of dental school was working for the government, driving around Ontario in a 1974 station wagon — a mobile dental unit — treating children in underserved areas. After a year, he headed west and practiced for 10 years in Vancouver.
Being an avid beach volleyball player, rollerblader, runner and bicyclist, he always dreamed of one day having a practice in a Southern California beach community.
“I would come and visit my aunt in Long Beach over the holidays, and when you go from minus 40 degrees in Winnipeg to Los Angeles, it’s easy to fall in love.” Gould said.
He finally made the move in 2001, initially landing in Santa Monica. He built his own business, Modern American Dentistry, and opened offices in Manhattan Beach, Santa Monica and Northridge. At each of the locations, Gould works with local nonprofits including Solace for the Children, a national organization with a local chapter of Manhattan Beach residents who bring youngsters from Afghanistan to Southern California for health care; Dig 4 Kids, an after-school program for kids from low-income communities founded by Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Eric Fonoimoana; and free clinics at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
Gould, who lives in Marina del Rey, also runs a mentorship program teaching younger dentists his “patient-centric whole-listic” approach to dental care.
“There is a real learning curve for young dentists, and having a mentor speeds up the process,” he said. “I emphasize the importance of establishing believability, likability and trust with the patients. It’s really rewarding to watch these young guys become successful as they start to have their own following of patients.”
Gould sees the mouth as a portal to the rest of the body’s overall health. Because many of his patients don’t have long-term relationships with a primary-care physician, Gould administers a nutritional and general health analysis at each six-month visit, which includes taking blood pressure. And after he was recently diagnosed with sleep apnea, he expanded his practice to include new treatment techniques for the sleep disorder.
Through his book, “The Perfect Smile,” and his articles in Pageantry, in which he touches on subjects such as anti-aging dentistry and migraines, Gould today reaches a much wider audience than his three offices allow. He’s even collaborated with DiGiovanni, who came up with the idea to produce a podcast called “Get Your Smile On” (available on iTunes and SoundCloud).
“On my podcasts, I am presenting all the things that I feel are important in health care,” Gould said. “If magnesium is a critical component to every cellular function that we have and nobody knows about it, and if vitamin D is key in helping fight off diseases, it’s my duty to present that information by the actual expert who discovered it.”
As a result, featured specialists have included Dr. Michael Holick, a researcher at Boston University Medical Center talking about the necessities of vitamin D, and Dr. Dennis Goodman, author of “Magnificent Magnesium.”
“This is a journey for me, and I’m taking a pretty big swing at the world,” Gould said. “I have something to say about the general state of dentistry and medicine, and I’m compelled to share that and not look away.”