September 19, 2019
The Essence of Hope
“There was never a night or a problem that could defeat sunrise or hope,” wrote nineteenth-century philosopher Bernard Williams. While it’s safe to say he was referring to “hope” in the usual sense of the word, after spending an afternoon with Dr. Hope Jackson ’99, I couldn’t help wonder whether he had her in mind.
True to her first name, Jackson embodies confidence and optimism in a way not always found in someone so young. Currently practicing as a bariatric surgeon (surgery performed on the stomach or intestines to induce weight loss) at the University of Maryland Medical Center, in 2017 she was awarded the prestigious 40 Under 40 Leaders in Health Award given by the National Minority Quality Forum to medical professionals striving to make a difference as leaders in the world of healthcare.
Jackson’s visit to KO in late October 2018 marked the first time she’d returned to campus since her five-year reunion in 2004. With four years of undergrad study at Emory University in Atlanta, two years of work in the medical field, four years of medical school, and seven years of surgery residency at The George Washington University before settling into her practice, Jackson hasn’t often found time to return to her home state of Connecticut.
But on a crisp autumn afternoon, she walked leisurely through the campus of her alma mater, flooded by memories – of teachers past and present, of performing on-stage in musicals and a cappella competitions, and of rigorous basketball practices. Catching a glimpse of her from across campus, many of Jackson’s former teachers ran over to greet her with a warm embrace and questions about her impressive career in medicine. Jackson met each inquiry with a smile and a candid response, chatting comfortably with faculty members who, over the years, have turned into friends.
Jackson said that, while she was always interested in pursuing work in the medical field, it took the guidance of many caring individuals to help her make a definitive decision about a career as a physician. Many of those teachers and mentors walked the halls of Kingswood Oxford with her when she was a high school student in the late 90s.
“I think KO fostered a lot of different things, not necessarily solely focused on science, but certainly, that’s where my love of science came from,” she explained. “Mrs. Caley was my biology teacher, and it was just great to see a woman who was so passionate about what she did and made learning fun.”
As a KO senior, Jackson applied early decision to Emory, where she majored in psychology with a minor in sociology. Upon completing her degree, she decided to take some time to work with patients before applying to medical school.
“At the time, I was interested in pediatrics but thought I needed a little bit more exposure before I really committed,” Jackson said. Knowing of Jackson’s curiosity about pediatrics, Dr. Eileen Storey, mother of KO alumnae Emily Record ’99 and Katherine Record ’02, connected Jackson with a physician at Emory.
“She actually arranged for me to work with a physician at Emory’s School of Public Health and shadow a pediatric pulmonologist,” Jackson explained. “So I worked there for two years, and then I worked at Emory’s hospital seeing little kids who had asthma and whatnot. That was a great experience.”
Inspired and excited about the next step in her journey, Jackson applied to medical school and was accepted to The George Washington University, her top choice. She spoke openly about the challenges of her time in D.C., reflecting on the tremendous workload, exposure to different medical specialties, and the friends and family members who cheered her on along the way.
“Learning information in medical school is akin to trying to drink from a fire hydrant,” Jackson laughed. “You have to have such a strong support – a friend network…family support, which I had. So you just put your head down and get through it.”
During that four-year tenure, Jackson grappled with work in pediatrics, pulmonology, obstetrics, and gynecology before realizing her true passion for surgery. Concurrently, she began fostering a deeper curiosity about the point at which media and medicine intersect and how messages about health are portrayed to the public. This interest prompted Jackson to participate in several internships during her time at GW, including working at the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston and at the medical unit of ABC News in New York City. During one of her research years in residency, she worked as a medical consultant for the popular medical drama series “Grey’s Anatomy,” filmed in California.
“I worked on set, I worked in the writer’s room…it was a great experience,” Jackson said. “I actually think I came back a better doctor in a way. It really is a skill to take something very complex, like the body, and explain it to someone who is not in medicine in a way that is empowering and in a way that they can do something with it.”
Jackson worked closely with the cast, writers, and producers from the end of the show’s season 9 through the duration of season 10. And while she said it was remarkable to be on-set alongside the likes of Shonda Rhimes and Dr. McDreamy, when asked about the proudest moment of her career, Jackson thought back to her residency graduation ceremony from GW in 2016. She expressed her joy at the fact that her mother, Paulette Morris-Jackson, who passed away just two weeks after her graduation, was able to see her complete the milestone.
“I think I’m most proud of that because it was a really hard journey, and she was there for all of it,” she said. “She sacrificed so much to help me achieve my goals, and sometimes we don’t say thank you at the moment, so I was very grateful that she witnessed the accomplishment and that I was able to thank and acknowledge her.”
Joan Edwards, KO’s Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Cultural Competency remembered that Paulette accompanied Jackson to KO the day Edwards interviewed her for admission. The two were always a team, Edwards recalled, working in tandem to be the best versions of themselves.
“She was a great example,” Jackson said of her mother as she and Edwards shared stories in Edwards’ office, which also serves as a student gathering area dubbed “The Brave Space.” “My work ethic was founded in watching her.”
Jackson spent the latter half of her time in The Brave Space chatting with juniors and seniors about their budding interests in medicine. They asked her about her journey through medical school, wanted to see her photos with the “Grey’s Anatomy” cast, and asked her to explain what a typical day in the hospital looks like. Jackson happily obliged, detailing her schedule on OR (operating room) days, waking up well before dawn to arrive at the hospital by 6:15 am. She explained that on a busy day, she might perform up to five surgeries, each lasting approximately two to three hours.
She also offered the students some words of advice. “Believe in yourself,” she said. “Take the time to learn about any of your interests, whether it’s photography or art or whatever. You can be a doctor and have time for something outside of medicine.”
As the students collected their jackets and backpacks and headed out for their afternoon sports practices, Jackson walked over to speak with the posse of teachers, coaches, and administrators who had also come to see her. She embraced everyone before offering her gratitude.
“I just want to thank you all for having me today,” she said. “This experience has really fed my soul.”
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