In His Father’s Footsteps

The end of one career leads to the beginning of another for dental family
Daniel Gonzalez, D15, with his parents, Guillermo and Patricia
Daniel Gonzalez, D15, with his parents, Guillermo and Patricia. Photo: Alonso Nichols
November 21, 2013

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Dentists have a history of going into the family business, but for Daniel Gonzalez, D15, the son of a dentist, going to dental school was far from a birthright. It meant not just hard work for him, but hard choices for everyone in his family.

Gonzalez was born in Colombia, where his father, Guillermo, was a dentist, and his mother, Patricia, a social worker. When he was still a boy, his parents decided to immigrate to the United States. His mother, who was born in Boston and had studied there, moved first. Soon after, Daniel and his younger brother, Nicolas, joined her. But 11-year-old Danny was not happy about it.

“I did not want to come,” he says. “I was leaving the comfort of my friends and family, even my culture, and going into something that I had no idea about. It was a completely alien world.”

School was especially frustrating. He knew he was good at science and math, but his undeveloped English skills hid what he was capable of. Being a social worker, his mother knew to tap into the support systems available. She signed him up for Big Brothers, the Boy Scouts, soccer leagues and a program called Summerbridge (now Breakthrough Cambridge), where high school and college student volunteers helped him improve his English and his study skills. His middle school grades improved so much that he was accepted to a private high school, Noble and Greenough.

He still struggled with English, and he had an hour-and-a-half commute each morning, but in the end, he graduated with honors, winning the most-improved student award.

“Danny is goal-oriented,” says his mother. Whether it was getting into a private school or becoming an Eagle Scout, “he wanted to really succeed in whatever he did.”

While Gonzalez was in high school, his father joined his family in Cambridge and took a position as a dispensary assistant in the oral surgery clinic at Tufts School of Dental Medicine. He had practiced dentistry for 25 years in Colombia, and hoped to go back to dental school for the degree he would need to practice in the United States. But that would mean loans and debt.

He knew that his sons would be applying to college soon. After much thinking, Guillermo made a decision: he would retire from dental practice and help support his family so his sons could have a good start on their own careers.

So with help from his family—not to mention several part-time jobs of his own—Danny Gonzalez attended the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” he says. “With my dad when I was little, I was in his dental office many times. I knew it was a great profession; you had a lot of autonomy. But medicine was also a little intriguing.” His grandfather had been a neurologist, and Gonzalez had gone with him when he visited patients in the Colombian countryside. “I was a little undecided, like most college students,” he says.

Learning from Cancer Patients

The two years after graduation would help guide him. He took a job at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, where he was involved in several cancer therapy research projects. He worked closely with a dentist who treated patients with head and neck cancer, and saw how vital dentistry was during treatment.

“I was able to meet with patients, and they said one of their biggest complaints was losing their teeth while undergoing their therapy,” Gonzalez says, explaining that patients might lose the ability to produce saliva because of radiation or multiple chemotherapy drugs, and their teeth would begin to decalcify. “Not only is it an important medical component to be able to chew and eat food, but socially and psychologically, to be able to smile and display your teeth to other people was very important for the patients.”

Gonzalez started to think seriously about dentistry. He talked to his dad (who tried to stay objective), but also other dentists. He shadowed faculty in the Tufts dental clinics and did research under the guidance of Aidee Herman, associate clinical professor of periodontology.

By the time he was accepted into the class of 2015 at Tufts School of Dental Medicine, Gonzalez was already a familiar face at One Kneeland Street. He has since become president-elect of the Tufts student chapter of the national Hispanic Dental Association, participated on the school’s admissions committee and organized a school soccer team.

Guillermo feels only pride at what his son has accomplished and doesn’t mind being a retired dentist. “I have no regret about my decision,” he says. He is now a case manager for Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services. “I love what I am doing right now. I love my elders.”

Of course, should his son need help studying for a perio exam, he always makes himself available to, say, explain the boundaries of a free gingival margin and biological width. “I have another resource whenever I don’t understand something,” Gonzalez says of his father. “He’s been a great help.”

This article first appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Tufts Dental Medicine magazine.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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