UCF medical student Kesha Thomas was driving home from surgical training in Davenport when she received the call from one of her teenage daughters: Their apartment was on fire.
By the time she arrived in Orlando, their home was in ruins, one of 20 apartments left uninhabitable. The fire displaced a total of 58 residents on April 21. The good news: The family dog, Roscoe, had been rescued by a maintenance worker who knew about the Thomas’ beloved schnauzer. But Thomas and daughters, Salem, 15, and Zorah, 13, were homeless.
That’s when her College of Medicine classmates stepped in.
They created a GoFundMe account – the Kesha Thomas Fire Relief Fund – and in a matter of hours had raised thousands of dollars. The Class of 2016, which graduates May 20, made a $250 group donation with the message, “We’re all in this together.” The fund is now up over $5,000 and has expanded to include donations of funds and supplies from College of Medicine faculty and staff.
“I’m grateful, speechless,” Thomas said. “I am honored to be in a school where people genuinely care about what happens to each other. That’s a testament to the type of physicians we will be. What my colleagues have done for my family is the epitome of empathy.”
The family’s Orlando apartment was damaged by smoke and water as firefighters soaked the walls to keep the blaze from spreading. Firefighters gave Thomas and her daughters 15 minutes to go in and gather important papers and a few pieces of clothing. The apartment has been condemned. The family is currently staying at a hotel, thanks to money donated by their church. She is hopeful they can soon move into an apartment near the complex. Their dog is staying with a family friend.
Fire officials said the blaze was accidental, perhaps caused by a discarded cigarette outside the apartment building. Thomas said the fire was difficult for her daughters to cope with.
“Sunday night was especially hard because they were worried about going to school the next day and what their friends would think about the fact that they were homeless,” she said. “I told my kids, ‘Life happens this way sometimes. It was nothing we did. You can’t control everything. We have to keep the faith. God will work this out for us.’”
Thomas grew up in rural Georgia, one of six children. Her mother worked in a factory as a seamstress for almost 30 years. When the last child graduated from high school, Thomas’ mother went to college, earned her Bachelor of Arts and became a teacher. She still teaches today. Thomas’ father built mobile homes, raised livestock and grew produce, which he sold at local farmers markets to support the family; he is now a minister.
“I came from a line of strong men and women who know how to endure,” Thomas said. “And I’m really drawing on their example right now. And as a Christian, my faith is an anchor for me.”
UCF medical students said daily life already can be hard enough with juggling long hours, in-hospital training and intense study schedules. Thomas is currently doing her third-year surgery rotation at Heart of Florida Hospital in Davenport and traveling back to Orlando after each shift.
“Kesha is handling completely different stressors in her life right now,” said classmate Jackie Babb, who helped organize the fundraising effort. “We talk about the College of Medicine being a family all the time. We knew this was something we had to do.”
Dr. Marcy Verduin, associate dean of students, said the fire has illustrated the reasons UCF’s physicians-in-training came to medical school. “Above all else, our students care deeply about people,” she said. “I am so happy to see them living out their values and I’m so impressed by Kesha’s strength, tenacity and ability to stay positive in the face of challenge.”
After her 2017 graduation, Thomas hopes to do residency in obstetrics-gynecology because of her passion for women’s health. She is a National Health Services Corps scholar, meaning she has pledged to provide primary care to an underserved community in exchange for her scholarship. She has witnessed health disparities in her own family and community as people struggled to manage chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension without insurance and support from a committed physician.
“My desire to serve comes from my own experience,” she said. “In my opinion, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution, and I want to be part of the solution.”
To contribute to the Kesha Thomas Fire Relief Fund, visit https://www.gofundme.com/29bzx9uk.