At 2:42 p.m. on July 16, 2001, a tiny baby named Ebony Raelyn Parsons entered the world. She arrived eight weeks early, dangerously premature. A team of medical specialists fearing the dreaded sound of silence surrounded Parsons and her mother, Jessica Weinhauer.
“From that moment on,” Parsons says, “medicine has followed me for my entire life.”
She carries on this conversation, in fact, while driving to UCF’s College of Medicine in Lake Nona. She is not a patient. She’s a researcher, studying how estrogen protects cartilage in women during menopause and perimenopause. In addition to her lab work and classwork toward a degree in biomedical sciences, Parsons, launched an organization called First Generation Medicine to help increase the matriculation rate of first-generation students like herself into medical school. She credits UCF health sciences alum Taylor Duffy ’20 for mentoring her through the start-up process.
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“I’m not supposed to be here,” she says with multiple meaning, “but I’ll never allow my experiences to limit my goals. If anything, they feed my passion for medicine.”
Parsons’ motivation comes from childhood memories of homelessness, hunger and fear. Although they will always be with her, she has never allowed them to dictate her future. She’s determined to blaze an extraordinary new trail for the next generations.
“So many things have happened to my family and to me from day one,” she says. “My friends hear about them say it all sounds like a movie.”
The script would go something like this…
Parsons weighed barely 2 pounds at birth, and quickly dropped to 1-pound, 11-ounces. She appeared too frail to touch. Doctors feared her lungs wouldn’t be strong enough to function on their own, which is why they expected her to be born without a peep.
“But I came out screaming,” she says. “The medical staff said I defied all the odds.”
Her mother has always called Parsons a miracle. Weinhauer was 18 when she gave birth to her. She’d been a track-and-field star in high school. Any plans to train for the Olympics and to further her education took a detour, but she has zero regret, calling Parsons “the greatest blessing possible.”
Weinhauer and Parsons (and later, a sister four years younger) had to move often. With little money and no father providing decent support, they lived with a grandmother in Florida, an uncle in New York and in trailer homes in North Carolina. During one brief stretch, Weinhauer moved her family into a homeless shelter for safety. Parsons remembers lying on a bed and finding comfort in the company of a stuffed alligator that had been given to her.
“My mom did everything she could for us, and I’ll always be grateful for her sacrifices,” Parsons says. “Through all of that, she stressed education. She would say, ‘The world can take everything away: your house, your money, your transportation, all of it. But knowledge can never be taken from you.’ ”
Parsons’s teachers knew her situation and her potential. One of them gave her a shirt with a reminder in big letters: “I Am Awesome.”
She still has the shirt.
“Little things like that had a big impact at times when I needed encouragement,” Parsons says. “It meant a lot to know that teachers saw me as a person and believed I could rise above my circumstances.”
Those circumstances continued to follow Parsons, and to shape her dreams.
The soccer field became a refuge for Parsons She grew into an athlete, like her mother. During a practice one afternoon, her knee gave way and she collapsed with a torn ACL. The injury would require major surgery just so Parsons could walk normally again.
As part of the pre-operation assessment at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, Parsons met the doctors and nurses. They were all friendly and professional, but one of them made a lifelong impression: the anesthesiologist.
“I was scared,” Parsons says. “I was a child, and the uncertainty of the procedure and the outcome worried me. The anesthesiologist took extra time to ask about my interests and what I imagined myself doing someday. He calmed me down.”
Just before the operation, he stood above Parsonsand said four words that she’d often heard from her mother during difficult moments: Everything will be fine.
“He was the first person I saw when I woke up from the surgery,” Ebony says. “That experience shifted the trajectory of what I wanted to do with my own career. I want to be like that anesthesiologist, looking at each patient as a person who needs to know the doctors really care.”
Parsons poured herself into her education so completely that she earned a Bright Futures Scholarship, making it possible to enroll at UCF and study pre-med. She earned a First-Generation Matching Grant and the Mark Dogoli Scholarship, which helped toward the purchase of her 20-year-old Honda Civic and for the gas needed for her commute to the medical center in Lake Nona. The scholarships and grants have also paved the way for Parsons to travel to Peru and Brazil with International Medical Outreach, which provides care to impoverished communities around the world.
“This is all to build a bridge for my family and families like mine,” she says, citing a study from the Association of American Colleges (AAMC) that says only 12% of students in medical schools are first-generation med students. “Students with backgrounds like mine are willing to do anything just to be a part of the medical community. Labs. Extra schoolwork. Volunteering. I think it’s exciting.”
It’s only been two semesters since Parsons started First-Generation Medicine at UCF. There are already 15 students actively involved. “It isn’t about numbers to me,” she says. “It’s about impacting even one student, and if that student is motivated by my story, then this is all worthwhile.”
Parsons knows her story is not completely unique. To raise awareness, she began to research student homelessness and food insecurity among UCF students. The findings are sobering. “I had those experiences at a much younger age, so even for me it’s hard to imagine trying to be academically successful while not knowing where you’re going to sleep at night.”
The research findings helped to increase funding for Knights Pantry, which provides basic day-to-day needs for students.
“My mom always said, from the moment I was born, that I’m here for a purpose.”
She doesn’t just believe in her purpose; she can see it clearly. She will graduate in May 2024, mentor more first-generation pre-med students, spend a year providing care to underserved communities, go to medical school and then start a career as a pediatric neurosurgical anesthesiologist.
During a medical outreach trip to Brazil in August, she saw a reminder of her own life, from the very beginning — the odds, the fear, and the hope. There, in a crude hospital room, a tiny baby was born prematurely. Parsons was part of the medical team, providing optimism and perspective.
“I couldn’t believe how small and fragile she looked,” Parsons says. “It was amazing to see that little life begin. I knew at that moment, she’s with us for a purpose.”
Support first-generation students like Ebony Parsons during UCF Day of Giving on April 13.