Establishing proper health and wellness habits is essential for your overall well-being. Maintaining a balanced diet, getting adequate sleep, and exercising are good things to do, but have you considered adding dental health to the list?
Dr. Mikenah Joy Vega is a cosmetic dentist practicing at Smile Design Studios, a Black-owned and women-run practice in Missouri City.
Dr. Joy is a Boston native who earned her dental degree from Tufts University School of Dental Medicine and relocated to Houston in 2018.
When she isn’t in dentistry, she is a health and wellness coach and creates content that encourages everyone to live “joy” and positivity.
The Defender had a one-on-one conversation with Dr. Joy to find out what you can do to improve your oral health this year.
Defender: You are a transplant from Boston, MA. What made you decide to move to Houston?
Dr. Joy: I grew up in Boston. I went to private school my whole life. I was always the only Black woman in every room and was tired. After dental school, I made a big decision to move. I came to Houston to visit my aunt, who moved here 15 years ago and has lived a great life. So, I packed my bags and left in 2018. It’s been five years now. I networked a lot. I put myself out there. I love Houston because people open doors for you if you’re authentic. In 2019, I met my now business partner, Dr. Simone Ellis. At that point, she had been a dentist in the community for about ten years. I wanted to work with her so badly. I showed up at her office once a week.
I learned about her sphere of influence. She is a top Black doctor in this area, and I wanted to connect with her because I like her for who she is and her practice. I jumped through hoops to show her how committed I was to this work. In 2020, she moved her office into a bigger space during the pandemic. She invited me to come along and be her co-doctor. It didn’t take long before I went viral on Twitter. We are all about giving the Black luxury experience. We only have a few places for us that give you good service and a good time. One of my patients went through that experience, and she posted it on Twitter, and before you knew it, we had all of Houston trying to get into the office. I do a lot of cosmetics, veneers, and Invisalign, but I do everything.
Defender: Why are you passionate about dentistry?
Joy: I have an immigrant mom (from Haiti) who said I could become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. So dental was my route. But I grew up in a dental office. My mother was a Haitian immigrant, and the most fantastic person to her was always a dentist. She always put the idea in my head; luckily, that was the path I went down. The journey felt effortless, and it just worked for me. It just matches who I am as a person. Becoming a cosmetic dentist I never thought, would be what I did. I thought that might work with kids, but I have an eye for beauty. I study photography. It’s all things I’m passionate about.
Defender: How does oral health impact our overall health?
Joy: You have to realize that if you are not flossing, brushing, and going to the dentist [eventually], you’ll have nasty bacteria that builds underneath your gums. When you have that inflammation in your mouth, it triggers other body parts. We must realize that our mouths are a whole microbiome, and we must take good care of it. If you have a cavity left untreated, it will affect you and eventually decay. Once you lose teeth, how can you eat your vegetables? How can you eat meat? Suddenly, you are undernutrition because you don’t have healthy teeth to chew your food. That’s what’s happening to a lot of elderly people. Also, you tend to shy away if you don’t like your teeth. You don’t laugh or smile, and they look stern. They are blocking their blessings because they don’t want to show their teeth. That could impact self-esteem and lead to depression and other mental health problems.
Defender: Black dentists make up 3.8% of the dental workforce in the US. What does that mean to you as a Black healthcare professional?
Joy: I feel so privileged. It gives me a sense of duty. I want to be one of the best dentists who just so happens to be Black. I do a lot of mentorships and get more people into the field. When there are not enough of us to care for our people, our people suffer. Oftentimes I’ve had to re-educate and get rid of the trauma people have had because they went to the dentist. A lot of what I do is therapy work.
Defender: What are some barriers that Black people face when trying to access proper oral care?
Joy: It’s education. Many people don’t know that your baby should start going [to the dentist] at six months. Many people don’t know that we need to get cleaning twice a year and the dangers of gum disease and things like that. We wait until something hurts instead of taking preventative measures. Maybe our parents didn’t have insurance, so we didn’t grow up going to the dentist regularly and not making it a priority. Not having those white-collar jobs that provide good insurance is another issue. Some people feel that if they don’t have insurance, they can’t afford to go to the dentist. In Texas, you can have dental care, even if you don’t have insurance.
Defender: You work with Smile Design Studios in Missouri City. What is it like working with all those talented women of color?
Joy: It’s beautiful. I would never have thought I would be living my wildest dreams like this. I would never think I’d wake up in the morning and go to the office where the whole staff is diverse. It isn’t easy sometimes because I’m a young Black woman, so sometimes people question my experience because of my age or how young I look. I have that respect, but it took some time to get out of my imposter syndrome.
Defender: You are also into health and wellness. Is that a business you do outside of dentistry?
Joy: My brand is based not only on cosmetics and aesthetics or making people feel confident through better smiles, but I’m also a proponent of finding balance and joy in everything I do. I decided early on that I would be like what I embody and bring to dentistry. Even though I know people hate going to the dentist, I make the experience joyful. Since moving from Boston, I have lost 30-35 pounds. Coming to Houston, I built my life from scratch. I had to make new routines, learn how to eat right, and not live a stress-filled life. My side business helps with weight loss and building routines. It’s a passion project of mine. I’ve endured trials and tribulations, and I want to help others.
Defender: What preventative measures should people take to have good oral health?
Joy: The first tip is to floss. The second tip is to throw away those manual toothbrushes and use electric ones instead. The third is that if your teeth are straight or out of alignment, it will be easier to care for them. The fourth is to get checked at least 1-2 times a year to ensure everything is okay. The fifth tip would be to stop sipping sugary drinks (coffee, soda) for long periods. This is what causes a lot of cavities.