Grace: Justin Jones leapt hurdles to become one of few black dentists

Dr. Justin Jones


He had done root canals already this morning.

He’d also fitted a 53-year-old patient for dentures, fixed a filling on a 54-year-old and broken the news to a 29-year-old that instead of one crown, she’d need two — plus a root canal to deal with a painful abscess.

By the time Dr. Justin Jones got to a 13-year-old patient named Maya, he’d seen enough of what time, neglect and bad luck can do to teeth. Jones saw Maya’s two bona fide cavities, two could-be cavities and plaque as hard as barnacles. He called her dad into the exam room to talk about the importance of brushing well.

This was a fairly typical day for the 40-year-old dentist who has rooted himself in an urban area where he hopes to serve more patients, especially those with unmet needs. As a black dentist, Jones is unusual in a mostly white field.

His career choice was sparked decades ago, when he was a kid in a dental chair getting a dreaded verdict. He needed braces.

But the eighth-grader wasn’t only concerned with the braces.

What does it take to be you, Jones asked.

Math and science, answered his dentist. You have to be good at them.

It was a simple answer that crystallized the direction Jones was supposed to take. Growing up in Racine, Wisconsin, life had presented two paths. One held trouble. Friends were experimenting with drugs, getting sucked into gangs.

The other glimmered with possibility, but Jones didn’t quite know how to harness that. He got good grades. He had a curious mind. He liked taking things apart and putting them back together.

What he didn’t know then — what the dentist didn’t say — is that Jones would have to do more than excel in the classroom. He would have to really want to be a dentist and hunger for that and do whatever it took to become that because life would present obstacles.

Like being homeless. There were times when Jones and his siblings were shuttled between divorced parents in two cities and home was a station wagon, a motel, an aunt’s house.

Like working through college on his way to a chemistry degree.

Like being one of two black students in a mostly white 83-member dental class at Creighton University. The other black student was from Africa.

Like losing his younger brother, Marcus “Worthy” Jones. Marcus had gotten the nickname at the old North Omaha Boys Club. Everyone thought Marcus, who wore safety goggles on the court, resembled bespectacled NBA star James Worthy.

“Worthy” and Justin were tight. They had schlepped between Racine and Omaha together, slept in that station wagon together, shot hoops together. So Worthy’s untimely death at age 22 was shocking.

He had undiagnosed diabetes and no health insurance. One day in 1999, he felt terrible enough to go to an Omaha hospital, where he saw a nurse who said he had the flu. Days later, he went to a different hospital that correctly diagnosed him with diabetes-related ketoacidosis. This is when your body can’t produce enough insulin, so it breaks down fat, and toxic acids spread throughout the bloodstream.

The diagnosis was too late for Marcus. He died.

“We couldn’t do anything,” Jones said. “I miss him every day.”

Jones’ path had gone sideways and sometimes backwards, but he still stayed the course. He married his high school sweetheart, Sheritha Smith, in 2000. The couple had a baby girl. Jones earned his chemistry degree at age 28. He got into dental school at Creighton, which accepts about 5 percent of all who apply. Jones graduated from Creighton in 2007, the same year his wife (a staffer in The World-Herald library) had twin boys.

Of the 960 active licensed dentists in Nebraska with an identified race, just nine — less than 1 percent — are black or African-American, according to the American Dental Association.

Yet blacks account for 5 percent of Nebraska’s population, and 14 percent of Omaha residents.

Experts say dentists of color are more likely to reach minority patients, especially low-income minorities, whose access to quality care can be restricted. Many dentists are reluctant to take patients receiving Medicaid, the government’s health care for the low-income people, because the payouts are so low and patient cancellations are high.

Creighton takes steps to recruit and retain minorities, said the dean of the university’s dental school, Mark Latta. Latta said dental schools in general have made progress in diversifying enrollment, but more needs to be done “to create a dental workforce that reflects the growing diversity of our population.”

Dr. Jones first worked at Rainbow Dental, an Omaha chain. Then he became dental director at Charles Drew, a northeast Omaha health clinic. In 2012, he moved into a brick building at 6530 Sorensen Parkway. He named his practice for his brother: Worthy Dental.

Worthy Dental hosted a back-to-school event last month with a bounce house, free backpacks and free dental care.

The day I visited, Jones hopped from room to room, staring intently into the mouths of his patients, gently breaking bad news and putting them at ease. They all seemed to like him and one patient was especially effusive.

“I love him with all my heart. Him, his children, his wife, I do,” declared Cynthia Gibbs, who was being fitted for dentures. Gibbs ran a coffee cart at Creighton and took special care of Jones when he was a student there. She had his back.

“I know for a fact he ate good every day!” Gibbs said.

“I did not go hungry,” Jones laughed.

Even the come-to-Jesus talk Jones had with Maya’s father ended with smiles.

So is this it, I asked him. Have you arrived? Is the dream achieved?

“I still want more,” Jones said. “I still have goals.”

Such as expanding dental care to reach more people, especially people who can’t afford it.

Maybe this could take the form of some kind of nonprofit organization. Maybe it could mean a clinic farther east in north Omaha. Maybe it could mean more free dental days.

Justin Jones might have his D.D.S. and his own practice. But he is still on a path toward becoming his dream.

Contact the writer: erin.grace@owh.com, 402-444-1136, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH

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