Dr. Ebony Jade Hilton ’04 says that kids need to know that being sad is okay. Stressful times like these can trigger a wide range of emotions from sad to mad to confused, and emotional health is just as important as physical health.
“My colleagues and I wanted to create a resource that could inform and empower kids. We wanted to show them all the different ways they can be helpful,” says Hilton.
The result of their efforts is We’re Going to be O.K., an e-book about COVID-19 aimed at helping children in vulnerable communities stay safe, healthy and optimistic. Written by Hilton, Dr. Leigh-Ann Webb and illustrated by Ashleigh Corrin Webb, the book was one of 256 entries submitted to the Emory Global Health Institute’s COVID-19 Children’s eBook Competition, and placed among the top 5 winners.
Hilton previously collaborated with the women on a community outreach initiative called “Stayin’ Alive,” a downloadable flyer that offers tips and information for vulnerable African American communities on preparation, prevention and symptoms of COVID-19.
“We wanted to literally put this information in the hands of citizens,” says Hilton. “Our goal was to spread the message that ‘you’re not ‘stuck at home,’ you’re ‘safe at home.’ The enemy of fear is information. Medical jargon can be intimidating and cause people to disengage. Giving people digestible information empowers them to take action.”
Hilton graduated magna cum laude from the College as a triple major in biochemistry, molecular biology and inorganic chemistry in 2004. She received her medical degree from the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in 2008, and remained there for her residency in anesthesia, followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. In 2013 she made history when she was hired as the first African American female anesthesiologist since the hospital’s opening in 1824. Today Hilton is an associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care medicine at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, medical director of Goodstock Consulting and a nationally recognized expert on how institutional racism has led to more severe impacts for communities of color from diseases such as COVID-19.
Hilton has dedicated an incredible amount of time and effort toward raising awareness about the long -standing systemic issues that put minority populations at risk.
“While the rest of the population has been fortunate enough to stay home during the pandemic, these individuals make up a large percentage of the population that are considered essential workers,” she says. “These ‘targeted populations’ are the grocery store workers, bus drivers and hospital cleaners who are forced to be in public, which places them more at risk. These individuals have the added risk of living in apartments and other high-density populations, so they have an increased risk of exposure at work and at home.”
Racial health disparities are not a new concept isolated to COVID-19, says Hilton. And neither are the protests for Black Lives Matter, which she says echo the protests of the Civil Rights Movement. Throughout history, the systematic racism of black and brown communities has deepened the vulnerability of these communities in more ways than one.
“I call it the intersectionality of pandemic and protest. What we know is that for every 2,000 black persons who were alive in January, 1 has died from COVID-19. What we also know is for black men in particular, their lifetime risk of dying during a police encounter is 1 in every 1,000,” says Hilton. “These two statistics should strike fear into any American, but they definitely give black people pause and are the reasons why many would risk exposure to COVID-19 in order to participate in a protest that says, ‘Enough is Enough’.”
Communities of color want these issues to be acknowledged, says Hilton, and to see the country work toward addressing them.
“Systemically there’s been an overlooking of these targeted communities. If we’re ignoring those social determinants of health (housing, transportation, resources allocated and the industrialization of certain communities), and ignoring the promoters of positive health (facilities to exercise and get proper nutrition), we will create a situation where people are more likely to be sick than healthy,” she says. “And as a nation, that weakens us.”
Goodstock Consulting, which Hilton cofounded in 2018 with her colleagues Kellye A. McKenzie and Kimberly Butler Willis, is rooted in addressing racial health disparities. Their mission is to “truly connect the grassroots to the grass tops.” Hilton says Goodstock was recently contacted by the Virginia Department of Health to create a communications plan that will educate the most vulnerable populations about COVID-19.
Hilton’s ties to the College remain strong. She was the 2019 commencement speaker, and, in her speech, she talked about the importance of slowing down and appreciating life’s little moments. She says that advice is more important now than ever.
“What we see with this virus is that life moves fast. We are one cough away from life being forever changed. This makes you slow down and say, ‘what is truly important?’ It reminds us to interact with life and beauty,” she says. “I would tell this year’s graduates that this pandemic is going to show us to appreciate those things in life that cannot be bought and cannot be replaced.”