We are family: A Match Day story

By: Betsy Friauf

Amelle “Ame” Shillington was 35 when things fell into place so she could apply to medical school. She set in motion a chain of events that transformed not only her life but that of her family — and a little boy in desperate need.

Duly accepted to the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, a part of the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, Ame was ready to embark on her medical education in 2013.

Her husband, Ryan, was totally on board, because at long last Ame was able to follow her heart. She’d worked in high tech — “hated it” — then found her calling as an apprentice midwife and doula, and now planned to become an obstetrician.

Honoring Ryan’s supportive work so Ame could become a physician, Ryan recently received the Donna Jones Moritsugu Award, which goes to partners of graduating osteopathic medical students who best exemplify the role of a professional’s partner by providing immeasurable support. The award was announced on Match Day 2017, a joyous celebration when fourth-year medical students learn what hospital they have “matched” for their residencies.

Big changes

Exactly what was the nature of Ryan’s supportiveness?

Med school meant big changes. Was Ryan OK with it?

Uproot their young family — two kids, dog etc. — from their Austin fixer-upper and move to North Texas? Yes.

Scale back his career as a software engineer so he could work from home 100 percent and be the main caregiver for their kids ages 5 and 7? Check, and check.

There was just one problem: David.

Ryan and Ame had met David years before, when he was a kindergartener. All the neighborhood kids, including David, loved the Shillingtons’ dog, and David offered to walk him.

The dog walks became regular. Ame and Ryan noticed David lingered as if he didn’t want to go home to his mom’s meager apartment. And he seemed hungry, so they invited him to dinner. He began to stay for dinner often, and they gave him dinner to take to his mom.

She was raising David alone, living on government assistance. She had a complicated social history, being poor and dropping out of school in eighth grade. She had four children much older than David, two of whom had been re-homed by Child Protective Services, and two who spent time in juvenile detention because of the difficult circumstances facing the family.

Surrogate parents

David began to confide in Ame and Ryan that school also was a hard place. Kids were picking on him. Ame and Ryan did what they could, encouraging him, helping him with homework.

In second grade he faced trouble. He hung with a crowd that was into bad behavior such as petty theft. His mother didn’t come to parent-teacher conferences, so David gave the school Ame and Ryan’s phone number. The Shillingtons became David’s school liaison, more or less his surrogate parents.

They realized David needed “a new ‘gang’ to hang with,” said Ame, so she reached out to the neighborhood and asked about play dates. “I had never had a child this age — I didn’t know how to do this.”

A neighbor said there was a Cub Scout group at the church behind them. Other neighbors said they would sponsor David by purchasing his uniform and paying the nominal expenses.

Cub Scouts are required to have an adult attend meetings with them. Said Ame, “I told David’s mom, ‘We found a Cub Scout group. We found people who will pay his expenses. Can you spend an hour on Tuesday evenings to go with him?’ No, she couldn’t.”

“Ryan said, ‘OK, I’ll go with him,’” Ame said. “Ryan would drive his SUV over to the apartment complex where David lived and load up his SUV with boys to go to the Scout meeting.”

When David was ready to graduate elementary school, Ame hated the thought he’d be going to one of the lowest-performing middle schools in Austin. She and Ryan asked David if he would like to transfer across town to a better school. He said yes — he hadn’t thought there was any way for that to happen.

They had missed the early application window, but Ame figured out how to find the open spots. “These are things that are hard for disadvantaged parents to do,” Ame noted. David’s mom had no internet access at home, very limited transportation and only limited phone minutes each month.

The school district buses children who go to transfer schools. But it doesn’t have a late schedule for kids who participate in after-school activities like band and sports.

David wanted to be in band, and he needed tutoring to catch up with his classmates. Having no car, his mother couldn’t drive him home after these late-afternoon activities.

Stepping up

Again, the Shillingtons stepped up. Two or three days a week, they drove David and his tuba home from school.

“David made friends and did well in school,” Ame said.

And then it was time for David to graduate middle school. And time for Ame, David and their children, Azalea, 7, and Ryker, 5, to move 200 miles away so Ame could start medical school at TCOM.

What about David? Ame and Ryan couldn’t bear the thought of abandoning him at age 14, just as he was entering high school.

“We sat David down and asked him if he would be willing, if we could figure out how to do it, to move with us, live with us,” Ame said. “He said, ‘Yes, yes! I’ve wanted to be part of your family since I was 5.’”

The Shillingtons hired a family lawyer. They talked to David’s mother. “She was sad, really sad, but we promised she could see David whenever there was a school break.” She agreed to shared custody.

Joining the family

And that is how Ame and Ryan became David’s guardians, and he joined the Shillington family.

On Match Day, March 17, TCOM celebrated its fourth-year students’ “matches” with residencies they will start this summer. Ame Shillington matched to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in pediatric medical genetics. At the Match Day celebration, she also was honored with the Dean’s Award for Scholarly Excellence with an emphasis on clinical studies, and the award for Excellence in Women’s Health from the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology Chair.

David, now 18, will graduate from Uplift Summit Prep high school in Arlington in a few months. He’ll be the only person among his siblings to finish high school. At last count, he had four college offers.

His Eagle Scout project? He led his Troop 335 in Richland Hills in making more than 100 sandwiches and distributing them to homeless people.

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