June 29, 2022

New memorial scholarship promotes diversity in medicine and patient access to mental health care

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image1Jessica Tooson and Dr. DeWayne ToosonIt’s hard to imagine a greater tragedy befalling a family than the death of a child. Yet in those terrible circumstances, people often seek grace amid their heartbreak. That was the case for gastroenterologist DeWayne Tooson, M.D. ’91, who lost his daughter Jessica in 2018 when she was a 21-year-old college student.

A bright and talented Northridge High School graduate with a passion for art and music, Jessica was working toward a degree in education and child development before her untimely death. “She was multitalented,” Dr. Tooson says. “She was a cheerleader in high school. She was an artist. She played multiple string instruments, mastered the cello. She had a very strong work ethic; she always had part-time jobs throughout junior high and high school. She was just a beautiful human being whose soul now rests with the heavenly father. And she has a daddy down here that wants to make her proud.”

The Toosons’ profound grief at losing Jessica was compounded in a way that many families experience but that too often goes unspoken. “Jessica was fighting a battle with mental illness that most never knew about, and that likely started in her preteen years,” Dr. Tooson explains.

Dr. Tooson decided to honor Jessica’s memory by establishing the Jessica Marie Tooson Memorial Scholarship in the Heersink School of Medicine.

The scholarship will provide support for medical students who are traditionally underrepresented in medicine (URiM). Recipients will be Alabama residents and preference will be given to students with a demonstrated interest in psychiatry.

“This is something that was very dear to me in terms of healing, turning something really tragic into something positive,” Dr. Tooson says. “Many families deal with this, and the suffering occurs in silence. So I want to do anything I can to help show what a beautiful human being Jessica was and help others have mental health access, not just for the patients but for their families, too.”

Through the scholarship, Dr. Tooson and his family hope to honor Jessica’s love of education and uphold her legacy by helping to promote diversity in the physician workforce and address the mental and physical health disparities faced by people of color.
Tooson family lrJessica Tooson (center) with her parents Tammy (second from left) and Dr. DeWayne Tooson (fourth from left) and sisters Erica Tooson Patrick (left) and Amelia Tooson (right).

As a Medical Alumni Association board member, Dr. Tooson was especially pleased that his gift supports the Medical Alumni Association/Heersink School of Medicine's URiM Initiative’s $5 million scholarship goal. Moreover, the impact of his gift was doubled as the Dean’s Office is matching gifts to URiM scholarships up to $150,000 through September 30, 2022.

Dr. Tooson knows from personal experience the difference scholarships can make for a young medical student. “I was the recipient of academic and merit scholarships through undergrad at the University of Alabama and at the School of Medicine, so I am totally indebted to this institution. This provides me an opportunity to give back,” he says.

He also understands the importance of patient access to a physician who can relate to their background and experience, as well as the benefit of this for both the doctor/patient relationship and the patient’s health outcomes. “Not only do I see it as a physician, I experienced it as a little boy in the late ’60s and early ’70s. In the doctor’s office, I felt like I was in a foreign country; I think the first time I actually saw a black physician face-to-face I was a sophomore in college. So it is extremely important, and I’ve seen it from both sides.”

To make a gift to the Jessica Tooson Memorial Scholarship, which is eligible for the Dean’s Office match, contact Gage Smith at 205-934-7881 or gagesmith@uabmc.edu, or make a gift online