Ebony Hunter, M.D., moves through the halls of the Emergency Center at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, calm and confident. She is laser-focused on her mission – to care for sick and injured kids and to put them on a path to wellness. To heal the hurt, whatever it may be.
But it’s her smile that captures the first impression … a smile so warm and genuine, it serves to quickly calm a frightened child or disarm anxious parents.
“I have always been drawn to kids. I love caring for them,” she says.
It would be easy to understand why Ebony’s smile might require some extra effort these days.
She is a physician on the frontlines in the era of the coronavirus (COVID-19) – at a time when she is also navigating great personal family loss.
On a Sunday in March, her uncle became the first person in her small hometown of Monroe, Louisiana, to die of COVID-19, devastating her close-knit family.
Then on Easter Sunday morning, category 3 tornadoes tore through Monroe, destroying the property of family and friends.
A week later, the town flooded.
Then, on another Sunday, this time in April, Ebony would lose a second family member, a cousin, to COVID-19.
In an uncharacteristically vulnerable moment, her father would ask her, “Is God mad at us?”
“No, dad, he’s not mad,” she assured him.
Ebony has always found a way to stay the course, to find the silver lining in things. She was blessed with a powerful early role model. Her mother, Gloria, had much to teach her about inner strength, about medicine, about life.
The adult daughter remembers vividly her mother’s oversized trench coat. It hung down to her ankles.
Gloria Hunter was always cold. And always on the move. A mother of six children, Gloria was a dedicated registered nurse in the town of Monroe. She worked two demanding jobs — one at the local hospital, and another as a home health care nurse on nights and weekends.
“I honestly don’t know how she did it. … She was so strong. … She worked constantly,” Ebony says. “But she was also the most giving and the most loving person I know. She loved so hard.”
Ebony’s parents were the first in their families to go to college and to attain advanced degrees, and they were committed to succeeding. Gloria juggled her nursing career and child rearing as she supported Ebony’s dad, Willie, an up-and-coming attorney in town.
Ebony was the baby and “tied to her mom’s hip” a bit more than the older kids. When she was still a very little girl, her mom acted on a hunch. She believed seeing Ebony might bring joy to some of her elderly patients convalescing in their homes. She began taking her along on some home health care visits.
“Some of these patients’ families weren’t visiting them. They were lonely,” Gloria says.
Ebony was shy at first, literally clinging to the back of her mom’s coattails as she cared for patients. But soon she began to love these visits.
“She’d let me do the stethoscope and help take their blood pressure,” Ebony says. “The patients ate it up. They made me feel like the most important person in the world.”
It was during these early visits that her love for medicine was sparked.
At age 10, on the short list for “student of the year,” Ebony wrote an essay about herself in which she very matter-of-factly stated, “When I grow up, I’m going to be a pediatrician.”
Her mom was delighted; she framed the essay and treasured it. But she also understood the fleeting aspirations of kids. They wanted to be doctors, astronauts, movie stars … and then they’d aspire to something different the very next week.
Truly, if she was to have picked a parent’s career to follow, Gloria would have bet on her daughter becoming an attorney, like her dad. As Ebony grew, so did her debating skills. The girl liked to talk. She could debate anybody.
“Mom, I really want to be a doctor," she told her.
“But you have all the makings of a good lawyer,” Gloria recalls telling her daughter, with a laugh.
Ebony grew up and became a pediatrician.
Looking back now, she appreciates the integral role her mother played, and just how extraordinary she was. Two jobs and a household of six kids, and still finding time to help each one of them feel special. Gloria cultivated her daughter’s curiosity. She taught her daughter to garden, to sew. They would enjoy long walks and deep talks.
“She was a very hands-on mom, very creative. And she was so fun!” Ebony says.
Her mom understood the power of laughter. Sometimes the sitter would drop the children off at the hospital to meet their mom so they could all drive home together. The kids had a particular fondness for the spiral drive in the hospital’s garage.
“She would get us at the top of that spiral,” recalls Ebony, “and just punch the accelerator to the floor on the way down. We’d all yell, ‘Whee!’”
It is a special kind of magic that only moms can conjure … the ability to make ends meet when they shouldn’t, to find time when others wouldn’t, to create moments in a child’s life— to make them feel worthy of love.
Today, Ebony is living out the values her mother instilled in her. Beyond her challenging shifts in the Emergency Center, she regularly grocery shops for four elderly couples in her neighborhood so that they can shelter in place during the pandemic. Ebony cooks for them once a week, brings them the meals, and even includes a photo of the way the meal should be plated, so they can feel “fancy.”
“I love her drive and her sense of purpose,” Gloria says. “And I love how she loves other people.”
Ebony is simply looking for ways to do the things she was raised to do.
“My mom is a core part of my spirit. ... I carry her everywhere,” Ebony says. “She’s taught me so much about being a woman, about being a professional, and if and when the time comes for me — about how to be a mother. She has truly set the standard.”