Sleep Is for Sissies: Jeff Gray’s Busy Life Is More Than Brightening Smiles

Jeff Gray founded a national charity that will soon pass the $30 million mark in earnings.

He’s also been in business in the same community since the ’80s, continues to do charity work locally, is a devoted family man, has become a good friend of country music star Garth Brooks and loves the national pastime as both a player and fan.

So what’s not to like? Sounds like somebody you’d want to share a beer or a burger with, right?

Well, not necessarily. He’s a dentist.

He knows many people hear "dentist" and think about that horrible scene in Marathon Man or conjure up nerve-jangling stories about root canals and the sound of drills.

Dr. Gray may be a peach of a guy, but to many he’s the last person they ever want to see.

"People come in every day and they say, ‘Nothing against you personally, but I hate dentists,’ " he says.

It’s something he never really considered until he graduated from UC San Francisco’s dental school and began practicing in the San Diego area in the 1980s. Then it hit him. So many people were so fearful of going to the dentist that a way needed to be found to make it easier for them to overcome their fears and take better care of their teeth.

With the fine-tuning of sedation dentistry techniques in the late 1990s, Gray found that way. Since then he’s embraced sedation totally, even making it a part of the name of his business. Drive up to his office on Fletcher Parkway and the big sign over the door says, "Jeff Gray, / Sedation and Cosmetic Dentistry."

Sedation has opened the door for people to put their fears aside, Gray says. Some haven’t been to a dentist for 10 to 15 years. Gray estimates that 60 to 70 percent of patients "that seek us out for treatment" come specifically because he provides sedation.

People who avoided treatment now get it. That makes him feel as if he’s making a difference.

"I don’t think I had any perception on what kind of dramatic effect you can have emotionally and probably physically for peoples’ lives," says Gray, who in March was named national Sedation Dentist of the Year by DOCS Education.

Overcoming the Fear Factor

In sedation dentistry, patients take a sedative pill before a procedure. They’re conscious but totally relaxed.

"It’s like the lights are on, but nobody’s home," says Gray, 51.

Gray points to pictures on his walls of patients with perfect smiles, many who were afraid to see a dentist because of bad experiences and perceptions.

Even with sedation, merely getting patients into the office can be a huge step.

"The first phone call, after people hear about it, sometimes it takes them a year or two to get up the courage to call us," he says.

Lori Stadille of El Cajon is one of those who stayed away from dentists "for years." When she saw an ad for "pain-free" sedation dentistry, she decided to try it. She’s now been going to Gray about five years and says, "I wholeheartedly recommend it."

"I’d break into a cold sweat about going to the dentist before," she says. "I hated it. I don’t like the sounds, the smells. Now I don’t hear any of it. I’m not nervous at all. … If somebody tells you you can sleep through the pain, I’m going to do it."

With people such as Stadille in mind, Gray aims to make going to the dentist as stress-free as possible.

His new offices–Gray moved in 2007 after 20 years at the Grossmont Medical Center–don’t have what he calls "dentist colors." No white walls or clinical look.

Instead, visitors are greeted by soft, Southwestern color schemes, brickwork, photos and a large-screen TV in the lobby. Five patient rooms share the same color scheme. Also offered: a smaller "relaxation room" with a plush recliner where patients can sit with the door closed, lights low and listen to soft music.

Smiles for Life Nears $30 Million Mark

In 1997, Gray launched a program that combined his dentistry with charity work, forming Smiles for Life, a national organization that helps children.

Gray approached the Crown Council, a national organization of about 1,000 dentists across the U.S. and Canada that he was a part of, with the idea that they would do teeth-whitening procedures for patients, who would write checks to the charity – rather than the dentist. Discus Dental, the company that makes the whitening gel, agreed to offer the gel free to dentists who took part.

Smiles for Life earned $1.5 million its first year, and will pass the $30 million mark this year. Each dentist who takes part contributes 50 percent of all money raised to a local charity of his choice, and 50 percent to Smiles for Life. Smiles for Life provides money for education, medical aid and programs to aid at-risk kids, working with Garth Brooks’ Teammates for Kids Foundation to allocate the funds.

"It’s hard to believe," Gray says of the charity’s success. "Thirty million dollars. That’s a dang lot of money."

And how did Brooks and Gray team up?

In 1999, Brooks went to spring training with the Padres to draw attention to his new charity. Gray saw Brooks quoted in The San Diego Union-Tribune as saying "The only people I give a damn about are the people who give a damn about kids," so Gray–a longtime Brooks fan–decided to contact Brooks’ foundation and set up a meeting to get their two charities together.

Not only did they begin working together, but Brooks and Gray also became friends. When Gray opened his offices in 2007, in fact, Brooks showed up for the ceremonies.

"As hokey as it sounds," Gray says, it had been a goal of his to become a friend of Brooks.

"When I first heard the song The Dance in ’89 or ’90, when Garth’s first album came out, I’m really big on goal setting and writing down things I want to happen in my life," he says. "I wrote down that I … didn’t [just] want to meet Garth but I wanted to be his friend."

Mission accomplished.

In 2000, after Brooks went to spring training with the Mets–again to draw attention to his charity–Gray and his wife, Mary, were invited to New York for Opening Day, and found themselves riding in a limo with Brooks through New York City.

"We just looked at each other and said, ‘Can you believe this?’ It was just a magical moment."

A Baseball Fan With Casey at the Bat Statue

Gray and his wife live in San Diego Country Estates southeast of Ramona, and are empty-nesters now, with daughter Jamie, 20, at Cal State Fullerton and son Kyle, 19, at UC Santa Barbara. Their weeks remain busy. Mary works in the office as a dental hygienist—they met at UC San Francisco—and Gray gets up at 3:30 a.m. four mornings a week to drive to La Mesa, work out at a local fitness center and be at his office by 7 a.m.

He sees patients four days a week and sets aside Fridays for conferences, meetings and work on the business.

Baseball has long played a big part in Gray’s life, and it’s evident at his office.

A bronze statue of "Casey at the Bat"–a replica of a large statue at Williamsport, PA, that he received through his work with the Challenge Foundation–is in the hallway. And he has photos of ballplayers he’s met and worked with.

Gray is a Padres season ticket holder, once attended Padres Fantasy Camp and for years has played adult-league baseball. His Sundays are reserved for playing left or center field for his team on local high school and college diamonds.

He and his son, Kyle—now a freshman baseball player at UC Santa Barbara–also attended the Pro Ball Clinic in Peoria, AZ, before Kyle’s senior season at Ramona High School.

Baseball, he believes, even played a part in his career.

One of his youth coaches in the Sonoma-Napa area was an orthodontist who became a friend of the family, and Gray became interested in dentistry because of it. After studying biology and physiology and SDSU, he went to UCSF and then returned to the San Diego area to practice.

Now, every day, he feels blessed.

"Even though I’m busy, I try to do things that are meaningful and important," he says. "To have at least one magical moment or inspirational thought or feeling, or give a smile to someone they can pass along."

Or even to help people like dentists.