Heather and Philip Ashley’s story began long before they ever met. It’s a story filled with “wow” moments; some even they find hard to believe. Now as they embark on the next chapter of their lives together, their mission is to bring their healing skills to the worlds of hurt they saw in childhood.

On June 4, Heather and Philip, who each grew up in remote jungle villages with their missionary families, graduated from UTMB’s School of Medicine. Their experience through UTMB’s Global Health Track has prepared them to make a difference in parts of the world that have little access to health care, they said.

“I’d seen a little too much of the hurting world ... and wanted to be more directly involved in helping people’s lives,” said Philip Ashley, who plans to become an orthopedic surgeon.

“We saw a lot of really hard things growing up,” said Heather Ashley, who is going into internal medicine and pediatrics. “Watching friends die was merely part of the society in which I grew up. I think that’s what really sparked my interest in medicine.”

The couple plans to eventually practice medicine together in Africa or Asia.

Their story begins separately, with each growing up among tribal people with little education or health care.

Heather Relyea (Ashley), who lived with her linguist parents among the Aruama people in Papua, New Guinea, remembers crushing chalk to use as pills to treat her dolls for the deadly diseases of malaria, tuberculosis and meningitis that she saw affecting the villagers around her.

Philip recalled the horrific tropical ulcers he saw as a child, living with the Sa’a tribes in the Solomon Islands. Several members of his family suffered from malaria.

At the age of 14, Heather went to a Dallas hospital for a spinal fusion. Several months later, Philip, also 14, was treated at the same Dallas hospital for a broken leg. There, separately, each had an epiphany — proper medical care could transform lives, but it wasn’t always available in the developing world.

Later that year, after a violent coup d’etat forced Philip’s family to evacuate the Solomons and move to Papua, the two teenagers met on the sideline of a soccer game. When Philip heard Heather mention the Dallas hospital where she had been treated, his ears perked up. They then discovered they had been treated by the same surgeon.

Another “wow” moment came when the two realized that a visiting missionary teacher whom Heather considered a surrogate grandmother in New Guinea was Philip’s great aunt. “It was kind of uncanny,” Heather said.

From there, a romance was born. “I see it as kind of a God thing,” Philip said. “I can see His hand through all the different ways of weaving us together.”

Heather and Philip dated through high school and college, marrying at the age of 22.

The couple chose UTMB, partly because of the school’s affordability, but mainly because of the Global Health Track.

“We were incredibly impressed by the support for global health and the encouragement we would have as global health track students,” Philip said.

“When I came to interview at UTMB, they showed me a map of all the different countries — I think there were about 60 countries that they sent students to at that point,” Phillip Ashley said. “I was just blown away by that.”

The UTMB four-year track is designed especially for students interested in providing health care to developing parts of the world.

As part of the program, the Ashleys just returned from two months working at hospitals in Kijabe, Kenya, where Philip Ashley used his orthopedic surgery skills, and Heather worked with women and children.

“I left Texas as a medical student and came back prepared to move into my new role here in a few days ... it really struck me as my bridge to being a physician,” she said.

Heather, one of five finalists selected by her peers for the prestigious 2011 Gold-Headed Cane Award, the highest honor bestowed on a graduating medical student, will pursue her residency in internal medicine-pediatrics at University Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Philip will serve his residency in orthopedic surgery at University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington, Ky. The couple plans to live together between the two cities and commute.

“Ultimately, I desire to help train physicians abroad,” Heather said. “One can try to put out a forest fire oneself, or one can wake a hundred sleeping firemen — this is the analogy that drives my desire.”

Read more about the UTMB School of Medicine Global Health Track.