Learning From Paul
HUNTINGTON — Against the cloudless sky and deep blue waters, Dr. Paul Wesley Ambrose, 32, grinned at the camera as he leaned against the side of a boat. He held in his arms a 4-foot-long mahi-mahi he caught earlier that day off the North Carolina coast.
"It doesn't get any better than this," he said. He was with his father and mother on an August 2001 vacation to Atlantic Beach.
A month later, Paul was on board American Airlines Flight 77 when it crashed into the Pentagon. He was a senior clinical adviser for the U.S. surgeon general and flying to Los Angeles for an adolescent obesity conference.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Ken Ambrose, Marshall University's sociology and anthropology department chairman, clicked from one picture to another on his computer. This time Paul was on the beach with his arms around his future fiancée, Bianca Angelino. Their eyes locked as Angelino glanced up at her smiling boyfriend. They got engaged two weeks before Sept. 11.
As the anniversary of Paul's death nears, friends and family said they still struggle with the sudden loss of such a unique person. Paul climbed rocks, practiced tae kwon do and loved whitewater rafting. Paul read odd books and listened to Goth music. He drove a black car covered in heavy-metal stickers.
He had bright blue eyes and a chiseled frame. A 1995 Marshall University School of Medicine graduate, he did his family medicine residency at Dartmouth University Hospital and later got a Harvard University public health degree.
Paul, who had been tagged as a future U.S. surgeon general, saw the prestigious degrees as the credentials he needed to get something done, said Dr. Robert Walker, Paul's friend, neighbor and former professor. He wanted to change public policy to help the poor, among other goals.
His father finds comfort in his photos. Walker, associate dean for clinical affairs and professor of community health at Marshall, finds solace in the numerous accolades Paul received posthumously, like the U.S. Surgeon General's Medallion, the federal department's highest honor.
"The fact that people have picked up on this makes me think that people valued his values," Walker said. "For [surgeon generals] David Satcher and C. Everett Koop to come to West Virginia, or rename their conferences for him, is really touching."
Another week, another award
Condolence cards from friends, family and strangers fill baskets at the front door of the Ambroses' Barboursville home. The U.S. Surgeon General's report on preventing obesity, which was dedicated to Paul, sits on a table.
"It seems like every few weeks, Paul gets a new recognition," said Sharon Ambrose, as she shuffled through some of the awards. Sharon is chief operating officer at St. Mary's Hospital.
Ken and Sharon have attended almost every awards ceremony. In March, they traveled to Texas for a recognition presentation during the annual meeting of the American Medical Student Association. About 30,000 medical students and residents nationwide are involved in AMSA, which lobbies for improved medical training and enhanced health for the medically underserved.
Paul was AMSA's legislative affairs director in 1995 and was involved in the local chapter at Marshall as a student.
In July, his parents went to the Barboursville Little League Softball Tournament. It was dedicated to Paul.
Sharon and Ken said it was just as hard to meet President Bush as it was sitting in the stands at the Little League game, with life-size photos of Paul staring back at them and streams of softball players carrying American flags.
"We appreciate everything everyone has done and we want people to know what was lost," she said. "But it's very hard at the same time."
During the interview for this story, Sharon did most of the talking. Ken sat next to her, his arm draped over her on the back of the couch.
"Paul's parents are so gracious, they go everywhere, accepting things on Paul's behalf," said Walker, who lives down the street from the Ambrose family. "But I'm just afraid they haven't had enough private time to grieve."
The first 'worst thing that could ever happen'
Sharon and Ken met while students at Duke University. She was a New Jersey native earning a bachelor's degree in nursing. He was getting a master's in divinity. They lived in Scotland before settling in Ken's home state of West Virginia.
They adopted both of their sons. Their eldest son, Kenneth Scott, was three years older than Paul. In 1998, he died of heart problems. Like Paul, he was 32 years old.
"When Scott died, we thought the worst thing that could ever happen had happened," Sharon said. "We thought that would be the worst experience of our entire life. That was obviously not true."
Paul spoke at his brother's funeral. After that, he did little things to relieve his parents' anxiety. He always called when he arrived on trips to tell them he was safe.
On Sept. 11, Sharon tried calling him.
"I kept calling his cell phone number," Sharon began. "And I kept hearing his voice message, so I kept thinking, 'His phone is in one piece, his phone is in one piece.' ''
But Paul left his cell phone with Angelino before he boarded the 8:30 a.m. flight.
They first started to worry about Paul because his office was near the Pentagon. Then they remembered he was flying to Los Angeles. A phone call from Angelino put their nerves at ease — temporarily. Paul had taken an early morning flight to Los Angles, she said, so he was probably flying over the Midwest and not on the hijacked plane.
But Ken and Sharon began to put pieces together. They matched his flight number to the hijacked plane.
"We put things together a lot quicker than Bianca [Angelino] did," Ken said.
"I don't remember much of what happened after that," Sharon added. "We somehow got to Washington to be with Bianca. Ken's brother and wife rode up with us and [Angelino's] parents drove in from Texas.
"I remember Friday being a day of prayer at the Washington National Cathedral and all I wanted to do was to be in the church. But when I called, they said the public was not invited. They said they couldn't let us in, even if we were family of a victim.
"So I told Ken to hand me the phone book. I called the White House and they sent a Secret Service guy to escort us into the Cathedral."
Down the road from the Ambroses' Pea Ridge home, Walker was watching the Sept. 11 events unfold on television when his wife walked sobbing into the room.
"It's possible that Paul was on the plane," Walker recalled his wife's words. "But for some reason, I thought she meant in the Pentagon. Paul wasn't in the Pentagon, he wasn't with the military. I could not get my mind on the plane. I foolishly convinced her that this wasn't so, until a neighbor called.
"At that point, I started thinking of bits and pieces, of the lost potential, the unfairness, the rage and sadness."
'From Paul, we learned to think outside yourself'
The one-year anniversary will not give Ken and Sharon closure. When Paul's remains were identified around Thanksgiving, they didn't find closure.
"It's too far beyond the comprehension of reality," Sharon said, "to come to grips with the idea that someone would knowingly do that to other people.
"And I wonder about that last hour. Paul was in the best of shape and would not have sat still if someone was harming other people."
Holidays will continue to be painful. Paul's birthday is around Christmas. Their first son died near Thanksgiving.
Dr. Pat Brown, associate dean for student affairs at Marshall's school of medicine, said he hoped to focus this next year on Paul's passion for pet projects, such as preventive health and the plight of the medically underserved.
"Otherwise, it'll be a horrible year to get through," Brown said.
When Paul came to Huntington, he often visited Brown and Walker at Marshall. On April Fools' Day, Paul disguised his voice on the phone, said he was from a crediting agency and scolded Brown.
"He did that three years in a row," Brown laughed.
Above Brown's desk is a Brian Andreas' StoryPeople print with this inscription: "In those days, we finally chose to walk like giants & hold the world in arms grown strong with love & there may be many things we forget in the days to come, but this will not be one of them."
"I was in a gift shop and I was drawn to it like a magnet," Brown said. "It says so beautifully what I thought about the event and especially about Paul."
He talks about Paul to any new student who walks into his office. Next semester, Brown will help teach a writing class for medical students. For an assignment, they'll have to write and reflect on the Andreas print, he said.
He hopes to inspire students with Paul's story. His daughter's boyfriend, Matt Weimer, left Paul's memorial service last year with newfound ambition. He was a medical student already interested in the medically underserved, "but he was so inspired by so many comments at the service," Brown said.
Paul, for example, volunteered three nights a week at an Arlington, Va., clinic for non-English speaking Central American refugees.
Paul also helped a janitor at a local health club become a personal trainer during his Dartmouth University Hospital residency. The former janitor drove from New Hampshire to Huntington for the memorial service.
Weimer returned to school and joined the local AMSA. He also joined the National Health Service Corps, where he gets scholarship money for working in a medically underserved area upon graduation.
Nicole Grieve, a second-year medical student at Marshall, first heard about Paul from her professors. They posted newspaper articles about Paul around the school and talked about him.
Paul and his accomplishments encouraged her to become more proactive. She joined Marshall's AMSA chapter and is now its president.
"It certainly got me more interested in AMSA," she said. "Medical students have so much work and they're so busy and so focused on their day-to-day things. From Paul, we learned to think outside yourself and of what's going on, on a national or international basis or what's going on in your community."
'He was never into safe choices'
At 32, Paul was about to author the U.S. Surgeon General's report on obesity.
"It gives us real encouragement," Walker said. "To think he came through here and went on to where he was going to go. He accomplished more in the area of public health and preventive medicine at his age than I think anyone in the nation."
But Paul wasn't perfect. He was an above-average student, said his professors, but didn't work as hard as he should in his basic science classes.
Paul was restless. He organized activities far beyond his classroom studies, they said. In a 1994 Charleston Gazette article, a 25-year-old Paul described a group he started at Marshall. The Society for Future Medicine rallied socially conscious medical students to help patients who did not have adequate access to health care.
"He was extremely bright and should have made straight A's," Brown said. "I gave him his only 'C' in medical school — although I didn't give it to him, he earned it."
Paul dated a lot of girls, "although Bianca was special," Walker said.
He was mischievous. Paul loved practical jokes and rock climbing, even scaling some nearby structures.
"We don't need to go into that," Walker joked. "I don't want to give students any ideas."
Ken later admitted that his son scaled the water tower.
"Paul was a risk taker," Walker added. "If Paul knew he was taking significant risks to fly in an airplane [on Sept. 11] to contribute to public health, I think he still would have taken that risk. He didn't follow the rules.
"And somehow, I have to take comfort in that," he added. "He was never into safe choices."
Paul did what any normal medical student would not do, they said. He took time off from medical school to study health policy in Spain. After graduating from medical school, he didn't immediately start his residency — an unheard of idea for any future doctor, Walker said.
Instead, Paul took a year off to become AMSA's legislative affairs director.
In memory of Paul, Marshall University started a scholarship fund for medical students who, like Paul, traveled the nontraditional route. "We want it spent in a way that will further Paul's values and career path, and encourage nontraditional interests in public health, the underserved and someone who has that unusual spirit," Walker said.
People worldwide have put "well over $100,000" into the fund, Brown said. They've received contributions from people who knew Paul from AMSA, Dartmouth and Washington, D.C., among other places. West Virginians and strangers have donated money. Even people who met Paul while sitting next to him on a plane or train contributed funds.
Walker and Brown also hope to raise separate funds to start a symposium and lecture in Paul's memory. The lectures would tackle issues in international health, preventive medicine and the plight of people who don't have access to doctors.
'I don't have the strength or energy'
On a recent Friday afternoon, Ken Ambrose picked up the front page of the Huntington Herald-Dispatch from a desk in his Marshall office. "9/11 tragedy still affects aviation," read the main headline.
"It's constantly in front of you," he said.
As a sociology professor, he said, he avoids discussion of Sept. 11 attacks, even if it applies to his lectures.
Talking about individuals who gave their lives to be part of a group? He'll discuss World War II kamikaze pilots and certain cults. Not the Islamic extremists who killed his youngest son.
"I just don't want to deal with it at this point," he said. "Other professors do, but I do not personally use that example."
Ken avoids discussions about who in the intelligence community knew what before the terrorists killed thousands of people. Or President Bush's approach to the war on terror.
"Psychologically and emotionally, I'm not ready to deal with this," he said, pausing and looking briefly out his office window. "The hurt that I feel at this time, I just don't have the strength or energy to debate politics."
When times were easy and good
Two weeks ago, Angelino, Sharon, Ken and Paul's best friend from childhood gathered at the Ambrose home. They traded Paul stories. Paul's friend showed Sharon and Ken a tattoo he got on his arm of the Sept. 11 Pentagon memorial emblem. Ken wears a similar emblem on a chain around his neck
Angelino works for the Association of Teachers of Preventive Medicine. She and Paul planned to get married this month in a castle in Spain.
"She has her up and down days," Sharon said.
Sharon pulled a crinkled photo of her and Paul from her purse. The edges were curling, but you could still see Paul's bright blue eyes.
"Those eyes, they were something else," said his mom. "It was the Fourth of July, we were in front of the Capitol with, like 9 million other people about two years ago," she said, smoothing the edges of the photo. "You can see his eyes so clearly; that's why I like it so much."
Ken and Sharon will both travel to D.C. on Sept. 10 to be with Angelino for the one-year anniversary.
But first, she plans a short excursion to Norway with an old college roommate. Sharon and her college roommate hadn't talked in 20 years, until Sharon called her the day after Sept. 11.
"I guess I wanted to talk to someone who reminded me of when times were easy and good," she said.
Those interested in contributing to the Paul Ambrose Scholarship fund should send checks to Linda Holmes, Marshall University School of Medicine, 1600 Medical Center Drive, Huntington, WV 25701. Checks should be made payable to Marshall University Foundation.
To contact staff writer Joy Davia, use e-mail or call 348-1254.