When Jereka Thomas-Hockaday, EdD, first received an email from the producers at Netflix’s wildly popular series Queer Eye, she was certain it was a scam. “That first day,” she told Medscape Medical News, “I stared at it and stared at it and didn’t tell anyone.”
Eventually, her assistant replied to the email. “They’re asking for you, Jereka,” she said.
“That’s when I knew it wasn’t a phishing email,” Thomas-Hockaday, a licensed surgical assistant and current healthcare administrator, said. “That’s when I knew it was real.”
Jereka Thomas-Hockaday before her Queer Eye makeover.
Queer Eye, inspired by its earlier iteration Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, premiered in 2018 and features the “Fab 5,” consisting of Antoni Porowski, Bobby Berk, Jonathan Van Ness, Tan France, and Karamo Brown, a group of experts who identify as LGBTQ+ who help to make over each episode’s participant — both inside and out.
The episode was filmed in the summer of 2020 in Austin, Texas. At the time, Thomas-Hockaday had left the “controlled chaos” of the operating room and moved on to use her experience as a platform for others by becoming a lead tech trainer, teacher, and later founding the Central Texas Allied Health Institute (CTAHI). Like many people in healthcare, she was beginning to feel worn down by her career. She was nominated by her husband, Ben, and her business partner at CTAHI.
Jereka Thomas-Hockaday with her husband, Ben Hockaday, who nominated her for the show.
Though her love of working in a hospital never left, Thomas-Hockaday, a self-described “mother hen,” felt called to help educate future healthcare workers. CTAHI’s mission is to help minimize the barriers disadvantaged communities often face when it comes to seeking employment in the healthcare field. Through partnerships with local medical practices, an emphasis on financial assistance and transparency, as well as on-campus social services that help mitigate external stressors students may face, CTAHI aims to help students achieve success in the workforce.
“I knew I needed to slow down but I didn’t know how to do it,” she says. “I could feel my soul being drained.”
CTAHI opened its doors 2 weeks before the pandemic lockdown in Texas went into effect in early 2020. While pivoting her business to an online platform, the city of Austin asked if Thomas-Hockaday’s students would be able to assist with the COVID-19 crisis.
So, in addition to running her business, Thomas-Hockaday was challenged with establishing and operating a clinic complete with both testing and vaccinations in one of the most underserved parts of Austin. Hundreds of patients were seen every day.
Thomas-Hockaday felt a calling to found CTAHI after her experience as a young woman witnessing her father’s fatal battle with lung cancer. “I spent a lot of time in the hospital with my father and I realized how many jobs it took to take care of just one patient,” she says. “I had always wanted to go to medical school but when my father passed, it made my mother a single mother of two, and she was taking care of my grandmother who was in the beginning stages of dementia at the time. I wanted to stay in healthcare but I wanted to do something where I didn’t have to stay in school so long so I could help my mother and my brother.”
She decided to become a surgical technologist and eventually became a licensed surgical assistant. “In the end,” she says, “I ended up where I wanted to be; I was in the OR, I just wasn’t a doctor.”
She emphasizes that many students have commitments similar to those she faced. “You don’t have to do four years of school and take on a lot of debt. You can have a career. These jobs can help you get out of poverty and into the middle class and you don’t have to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt to do it.”
“That’s my main motivator,” she says. “For people to see me and say ‘She did it, I can do it.’ “
With that mission in mind, it’s no wonder that the Fab 5 selected Thomas-Hockaday as a participant in their latest season.
On the left, Ben Hockaday and Jereka’s son, Carter, spend time with three members
of the Fab 5: Karamo Brown, Jonathan Van Ness, and Bobby Berk.
Putting Panic Behind to Focus on Self-Care
Over the course of 5 days, Thomas-Hockaday met one-on-one with each member of the show to help transform the way she cared for herself. That meant stepping away from her leadership roles at both CTAHI and the COVID-19 clinic.
Karamo Brown, Bobby Berk, Jonathan Van Ness, Tan France, and Antoni Porowski stand alongside Jereka Thomas-Hockaday as she sees her newly renovated outdoor space for the first time.
“The first day was absolutely panic-inducing,” she says. “I couldn’t get in touch with any of my staff and I couldn’t talk to anyone — I wasn’t allowed to. What’s going on at the campus? What are my students doing? My brain was going, going, going. I was really struggling with being present during filming and being away from my campus and my students.”
Then, the producer sat down with Thomas-Hockaday. He told her, “You’re not going to get anything out of this unless you completely disconnect and focus.” She took that to heart and described that moment as a turning point in the experience.
“I expected the whole thing to be a lot more Hollywood than it was,” she says. “I didn’t expect to have so much interaction with the Fab 5. I figured they would come in, film, and leave. They were very warm, they talked to me. They’re very sincere, the whole staff.”
Karamo Brown, left, and Jonathan Van Ness, right, look on while Jereka Thomas-Hockaday and Bobby Berk embrace.
Each episode is broken down into intimate meetings between the show’s members and the participant. Antoni Porowski offers a cooking lesson, Bobby Berk works as a transformative interior designer and architect, Tan France is the residential fashion expert, Jonathan Van Ness covers all hair and beauty needs, and Karamo Brown lends his confidence-building, life coaching skills.
Karamo Brown and Jereka Thomas-Hockaday react to the reveal of her home’s design transformation.
By day, Thomas-Hockaday dedicated herself to self-reflection and self-care but at night she continued to work, tapping away on her laptop well after her husband and young son went to sleep. This, along with what she refers to as a “very grown-ass conversation” with Karamo, wasn’t televised. ” ‘Do you have to turn [your work] in at 3 AM.?’ he asked me. ‘They’re not gonna see it then. Go to sleep.’ ” Later, in a scene that did make the final edit of the show, France demanded Thomas-Hockaday’s phone and called her assistant at CTAHI. “Is the building burning down?” he asked. “Is everything okay?” And, of course, everything was okay.
Jereka Thomas-Hockaday emanates confidence in her new wardrobe curated by Tan France.
“That was the moment that struck me and I realized that everybody would be fine,” Thomas-Hockaday says.
As a viewer, it can be easy to pick a favorite member of the Fab 5, but Thomas-Hockaday doesn’t play favorites. “It’s impossible for me to say that I enjoyed time with one person more than the other,” she says. “The time that I had with Jonathan, we were playing dress-up and dyeing my hair — we were having a girl’s beauty shop moment. That’s very different from the time I had with Bobby where we talked a lot about my garden and memories of my grandmother because she’s the one who taught me how to garden. Cooking with Antoni brought me back to cooking with my grandmother, snapping peas in the kitchen with my brother. I can’t compare any one of them.”
Jonathan Van Ness pampers Jereka during their “girl’s beauty shop moment.”
“You Can’t Help Anybody if You’re Not Helping Yourself”
More than a year after the Fab 5 left Texas, CTAHI continues to help Austin in the fight against COVID-19. This past September, the city of Austin chose not to renew funding for the COVID-19 clinic, and Thomas-Hockaday was forced to come up with a plan B.
Jereka Thomas-Hockaday after her Queer Eye makeover.
“It would have been a considerable blow to our community,” she says. “We’re basically the only option for residents of Eastern Travis County. More than 250 people daily walk through our clinic’s doors.” Thankfully, African American Youth Harvest Foundation, a nonprofit that works to “improve access to vital educational, economic, and enrichment resources to low income or uninsured community members” according to its website, had space available in its building for both the clinic and CTAHI’s campus.
Now, the clinic operates entirely on donations, both in-person and online. Thomas-Hockaday aims to keep it open and running for “as long as humanly possible.”
For other healthcare professionals who sense the need to slow down, but perhaps don’t have the arsenal of the Fab 5 at their fingertips, she offers this advice: “Even if it’s just 2 minutes a day, take the time to walk away and take a breath. Go somewhere and breathe.”
“I know this pandemic has been so hard on us,” she adds. “There’s always been this idea of a social contract between healers and the people; we’ll protect you and you’ll protect us. Right now, so many of us feel like we’ve been abandoned. So take those 2 minutes.”
“Sometimes you have to go in the broom closet, sometimes you have to go in the bathroom stall. I’ve been there many times. Take care of yourself because no one is going to do it for you. You can’t help anybody if you’re not helping yourself.”