It was Easter Sunday of 2015, but Zach Smith wasn’t celebrating.
He was struggling in medical school and had just learned he would have to retake a board exam. Adding to this stress was the fact that he and his wife Chelsey had been trying unsuccessfully for four years to have children.
Now they were in church, attempting to worship. But sitting with them was Zach’s brother and his baby, and Zach’s sister and her baby. Behind them was an Army couple with their baby, and a high school friend with his baby. In front of them was another high school friend with a baby.
It was too much to take.
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“We both cried in the service,” Zach says. “Our hearts were broken. … There were babies everywhere, and they weren’t ours.”
That was the low point, but things were about to change in a hurry. This is their story.
Zach Smith met Chelsey Morris when they were 13 years old and students at Calvary Christian School.
He decided pretty quickly he’d found his future wife, even though Chelsey’s father, Columbus stockbroker A.J. Morris, told Zach if he wanted to hang out with Chelsey he’d have to hang out with their whole family.
The next thing for Zach to decide on was a career. He had no idea.
“I’m the kind of guy who likes doing what I’m doing in the moment,” Zach says. “I had no one clear thing. I’m passionate about everything.”
His father, David Smith, is a physician.
“I loved that people would come over in the middle of the night,” Zach says. “My dad would look in children’s ears and check their tonsils. … He was able to be such a help to so many people. Anyone who knew my dad could call him up for help.”
Most of all, Zach admired how his father lived his life.
When David Smith was a boy, he stenciled a sign that said “Discipline Counts” and hung it up in his room.
“His siblings thought it was the dumbest thing,” Zach says.
Zach found the sign and put it up in his own room.
Zach, now 32, is the fifth of David and Cheryl Smith’s six children. Today, their son David, 40, is a master plumber in Lynchburg, Va.; Matt, 38, is a sheriff’s deputy in Chelsea, Ala; Luke, 36, is a lawncare specialist in Columbus; Stephany Golden, 34, is a registered nurse in Nashville; and Juli Pope, 30, is a seamstress and stay-at-home mom in Columbus.
Despite a busy work schedule, David set a goal to take each of his children out once a month for some one-on-one time.
“I was partially successful in this area,” he says. “With six kids in 10 years, there was an endless amount of school events to attend. … But the times that the kids remember and the times that I prize were when I forced myself to get up and take one of them out, whoever’s turn it was.”
Zach wanted to have a big family of his own someday. He was impressed that his father could hold a demanding job, provide a good life for his family, and still show up to all of Zach’s tennis matches and basketball and baseball games.
So as a high school junior, Zach chose medicine. He would remember this when he followed his brothers to Liberty University and had to choose a major. He picked pre-med.
“My dad gave me some good advice,” he says: “It’s easier to change the direction of an object that’s in motion than one that’s standing still.”
A different path
While attending college in Virginia, Zach made frequent trips to Birmingham, Ala., where Chelsey was attending Samford University.
At the end of his junior year, Zach had already been on medical mission trips to Guatemala and Belize, and he now had the opportunity to go to Zimbabwe with Columbus optometrist Stephen Beaty to conduct eye clinics. He had enough money to go, but he’d saved it for Chelsey’s engagement ring.
He told Chelsey, “I’ve been saving up for something. If I spend it on the trip it may delay other things.”
She told him to go, and the trip changed his life. “I realized that medicine opens doors in other countries and people’s lives,” Zach says, “and is a platform to share the love of Jesus.”
A year later, in the spring of 2007, Zach and Chelsey graduated from college, and two weeks later they married.
But it would be more than five years until Zach applied to medical school. When you’re a Smith, you don’t stand still, but you don’t necessarily follow the same path as everybody else.
During the Vietnam War, Zach’s father had left college after a year to enlist in the Army because he had a low draft lottery number. David Smith didn’t begin pursuing his undergraduate degree until the age of 26, and then attended medical school as he was turning 30.
Zach also chose an indirect path. When he finished college, he worked as a window cleaner and also at a church as a part-time youth director and college minister.
In 2008, Zach and Chelsey returned to Columbus, where Zach began working as youth minister at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church while Chelsey pursued a graduate degree in speech pathology at nearby Auburn University.
Eventually, Zach started studying for the Medical College Admission Test, which wasn’t easy for him. For starters, he was working 50 or 60 hours a week leading church events and attending the school activities of the teens in the youth group he led. He also ran a photo and video business out of his home and was shooting about a dozen weddings a year.
Then there was the fact that he hated studying. “I’m an extrovert, and I find it lonely,” he says.
Still, Zach believed he could get into med school. Chelsey wasn’t nearly as hopeful. “I gave him a .05 percent chance,” she says. “I always think on the realistic side.”
They were both sure of one thing: It was time for them to start a family, and they wanted to have their first child while they were in Columbus. The odds of that happening seemed much higher than Zach becoming a doctor anytime soon.
Zach kept trying to study while working long hours doing things he enjoyed more. He took the MCAT anyway. When he got his scores, he didn’t think they were high enough, but he applied to medical school anyway.
He figured he’d get a rejection letter and then spend another year studying for the test and reapplying to more schools.
“I applied to medical school knowing I wouldn’t get in,” Zach says. “I figured it would show persistence.”
But then a funny thing happened: Zach got an acceptance letter.
Zach and Chelsey were headed to the Atlanta area where he would enroll at The Georgia Campus of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“We were so shocked it actually happened but really excited,” Chelsey says.
The hard way
Zach learned that medical school is especially tough when you’ve never developed good study habits.
“I was a hands-on guy,” Zach says. “I didn’t learn how to study until med school.”
For the first time in his life, he lacked confidence in himself. He found himself parking in the back lot of the school because he didn’t think he deserved a good spot up front.
“It felt like I got in by accident,” he says. “I felt someone would come up and say, ‘You don’t belong here.’ ”
He was struggling, and to make matters worse, he and Chelsey had failed to achieve their dream of starting a family. They were now considering adoption but had not yet found a child.
Living in Atlanta, it would sometimes take Zach 90 minutes to drive the 12 miles to and from school. He spent the time praying and meditating on scripture.
Three passages stuck with him.
Proverbs 16:9 told him that man makes plans but the Lord directs his steps.
I Thessalonians 5:16-18 told him to rejoice, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in every thing.
And I Corinthians 12:9-10 told him that God’s strength was made perfect in human weakness, and that because of Christ, man is actually strongest when he feels most weak.
“These are words you know in your head, but when you go through things, they are imprinted in your heart,” Zach says.
Meanwhile, he was studying for the grueling second part of the United States Medical Licensure Examination, a 9-hour-long test of clinical knowledge.
He knew one thing: God had opened the door for him to go to medical school and he wasn’t quitting now.
“My personality and the way He’s made me – my tenacity – if He opens a door then I’m going to push the door open with all my might,” he says.
Then came that Easter Sunday of 2015.
Zach had just learned that he’d failed the Step 2 exam by a slim margin. It’s common for medical school students to need a retake, but Zach wasn’t accustomed to failing at anything.
He’d have to study and take the test all over again.
That’s when he was sitting in church with Chelsey. They were surrounded by siblings and friends who were advancing in their careers.
And having babies.
That’s when they started to cry.
And that’s when things started to change.
Several days later, they had a meeting with a birth mother who was 6 months pregnant.
They were nervous, especially Zach. “What if she’s intimidated because I’m bald?” he wondered. He changed his shirt three times.
When they met with the mother, she told them she was having a boy and then she went down a long list of questions. “She was asking us specific things about how we would raise him,” Chelsey says.
Then it dawned on them. “We realized she’d chosen us,” Chelsey says. “It rocked our world.”
They went home and started getting things ready for their son. In Georgia, a mother putting her child up for adoption has 10 days after giving birth to change her mind. Some adopting parents decide to wait until the adoption is final to bring the baby home.
Zach and Chelsey decided they wouldn’t wait.
“It was crazy preparing to bring a child home that might not stay with you,” Chelsey says. “But if she changed her mind, we were OK. … If it was nine days, the Lord would have called us to love and care for that child for nine days.”
They also settled on a name: Roran Grayson Smith. They would call him Roran, after the cousin of the title character in the fantasy book “Eragon.”
That was Zach’s idea. “He had no special powers,” Zach says of the Roran character, “but in my opinion he ends up being the hero of the story. … All he has is his fears, his nature and his heart.”
While waiting for the birth mother to deliver, they were in Birmingham for the college graduation of Chelsey’s brother.
The whole time, Chelsey felt terrible. “I thought, either I’m deathly ill with the flu,” she says, “or I might be pregnant.”
Between the graduation and the party, she took a pregnancy test. It was positive.
They didn’t tell anybody. “It was our little secret,” Chelsey says.
They were excited but also confused.
“We thought, ‘What is God doing?’ ” Chelsey says. “Is this preparing us for losing the child? We were going to walk forward with hopeful expectation.”
This time, Zach was the realist. He knew Roran’s birth mother could still change her mind, and that Chelsey was early in her pregnancy. “Neither situation was guaranteed,” he says.
But both things happened.
When Chelsey reached her first trimester, they gathered family and friends and showed a video of the ultrasound and their baby’s heartbeat and announced that Roran was going to be a brother.
The news was met with tears of joy and happy shouts of disbelief.
On July 7, 2015, Roran was born.
Ten days later, he was still their son. They’d have six months before their number of children doubled.
“We soaked up our time with him,” Chelsey says.
Meanwhile, Zach began studying to retake the test. But first, he needed to change his mindset.
He read a book recommended by a friend called “The 4:8 Principle,” written by Tommy Newberry and based on Philippians 4:8.
“It’s about being intentional and the power of your mind,” Zach says. “… I realized I’d gone into the exam mentally weak. Human beings always follow through with who they believe they are. My medical school career fell in line with who I believed I was. I was insecure, which is unnatural to me.”
The morning he left home to retake the test, he waved goodbye to his pregnant wife and his baby boy.
This time something was different.
“I had to change my belief system,” Zach says. “I walked into the test with a different mindset. I wasn’t afraid. I had a son – I had a newfound motivation.”
Since that Easter morning when they felt like life had stopped, things haven’t slowed down for the Smiths.
In 2016, Roran was born and Zach passed his test.
Then on Jan. 18, 2016, Charles Bodeker Smith was born, named after one of Chelsey’s grandfathers. He’ll go by Charlie.
Zach and Chelsey went from caring for one baby to suddenly having two.
“It’s like being a single parent – you each have one of them,” Chelsey says. “There was a lot of crying in this house.”
Then on May 26 of this year, Zach graduated from medical school.
His father put the green hood on him, signifying that he’d become a physician.
David Smith says his son will be “an amazing doctor” because of his interpersonal skills and leadership ability.
“The clinical stuff is factual material any reasonably intelligent person with common sense can attain,” he says. “The people skills, in general, you either have or you don’t. Zach has them. And while people will go to a good clinician with poor people skills, they won’t like it and will always choose someone they like and trust if they have an option.”
The father talked about his son’s persistence and called the moment “surreal.”
So did Chelsey.
“I was incredibly proud of him,” Chelsey says. “Zach has always been a person who finds a way to overcome any obstacle in his way. It’s the hardest battle I’ve seen him fight.”
Now Zach has moved his family to Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he begins a residency in family medicine.
As he looks back on his journey, he says it’s proof that God’s plan is better than anything he could have dreamed up.
“God wanted me to know I’m a doctor only because of his grace,” he says. “That’s what he called me to do. That’s what he equipped me to do.”
And the same goes for being a father, he says. Just when he thought he’d never have a child, he got two sons, six months apart.
“It’s a great honor way above being a doctor to be father to those boys,” he says.