Shontaveon “Shonta” Frody had just four days until her New York debut.
Fashion Week would run Feb. 8-16 in the Big Apple. Her Forge Clothing Line had earned a spot on the runway in an “emerging designers” showcase at The Church of the Holy Apostles, near Madison Square Garden, organized by Detroit-based Walk Fashion Show.
The Forge line is her brand, a metaphor for her life.
By way of Merriam-Webster, the verb “forge” has two critical meanings here: (1) to form by heating and hammering, to beat into shape; and (2) to form or bring into being, especially by an expenditure of effort.
In short, to become something beautiful.
When Frody’s doctor, Jessica Smith, MD, heard her patient was headed to Manhattan for her clothing line’s debut, her face lit up.
“You are?” Dr. Smith exclaimed, smiling wide. “I am so happy for you!”
Frody is 22.
Dr. Smith, 29, is in her residency at Spectrum Health, but she has also become something of Frody’s counselor and confidante at the Spectrum Health Internal Medicine Residency Clinic in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Just seven years separate them—about the number of years since Frody learned she had acute myeloid leukemia.
At age 15 her kidneys began to fail. Untreated, she would have died.
“In a forge, a hot iron is beat up in intense fire, then shaped into something beautiful,” Frody said on a wintry morning, not long before she headed to New York to spotlight her brand of urban chic. “I have been abandoned and been hurt.”
Through it, she said, she has also been shaped and forged.
The pairing of patient and physician in 2016 proved life-changing.
Music to medicine
Dr. Smith is the youngest of seven siblings from Florida. As a child, Dr. Smith always knew what she wanted to do.
“I remember growing up and I was like that weird kid that liked going to the dentist, liked going to the doctor,” Dr. Smith said. “I liked shots.”
She was also the kid who practiced classical piano, from age 9 to 18. Then she went to college.
“My dad thought I was going to major in music,” she said. She told him she wanted to do pre-med.
She graduated from the University of Florida in Gainesville and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, one of the oldest and largest historically black academic health science centers in the U.S.
She sees patients of color. But she does not see color in patients. Sometimes they do, in her.
“There have been people who blatantly say, ‘I don’t want you to be my doctor,’” she recalled.
Other times, they’re simply happy to see her.
“Minority patients appreciate having a minority doctor,” Dr. Smith said. “Some people have never seen a minority doctor. They are happy.”
She co-founded the Spectrum Health Resident & Fellow Diversity Council along with Christine Nkemeh, MD, an obstetrics and gynecology third-year resident, during their intern year. The council seeks to improve recruitment and retention of medical graduates from underrepresented communities.
Dr. Smith is in her final year of a three-year internal medicine residency at Spectrum Health.
“Things that are the rarest of the rare we see here,” she said. “There’s not one thing I love (more than others). I like a mix of everything. It’s never boring. There’s always something exciting.”
She looks patients in the eyes. She will lower herself, so as not to hover. She knows tears. She sometimes relays bad news.
“I try to be aware of the surroundings,” the doctor said. “Is the TV on? Is the IV beeping? Have they been crying? Instead of standing over them, sit down, close the door. I’ve held hands before. I’ve wiped tears before.”
‘You can trust me’
Frody began her life in foster care in Detroit. Her mother was 16 when she birthed her. Her mom was already in the social service system.
As she grew, Frody stumbled through a string of foster families. By her eighth foster home, she felt rootless.
But then her family adopted her at age 8. She is now one of three siblings, with an older sister and younger brother. Her adoptive parents own a West Michigan real estate company.
As Frody entered high school in 2010, things began to look up. She became more social and athletic and developed a passion for track and dance.
Then, in January 2011, her freshman winter at Jenison High, she fell ill.
She had to be rushed to Butterworth Hospital amid vomiting and uncontrollable pain. She couldn’t even walk.
At about midnight she got the news.
“I remember a doctor came in and said I had leukemia and we have to put her (out) now, because we don’t think she is going to make it to 16,” she said.
She spent days unconscious. Her kidneys were shutting down. The treatment proved intense—chemotherapy, radiation, stem-cell transplant. The insult to her body caused its own harmful complications.
She had to relearn to walk. Sports were out. Weight fell off. Bearing children would become another issue.
“I got that teenager taken away from me, just like I had my childhood taken away from me,” she said. “I was in a dark place in my life and everything I went through kind of crept back in.”
After five years, she became cancer-free. But by then she had sunk into depression. Social media posts shouted her pain.
In September 2016, Dr. Smith got a chance to work with Frody. The doctor found a wisp of a young woman, mentally and physically.
“To me, inside, I was screaming,” Frody said. “I wanted to open up but didn’t really open up. As I met Jessica, I was crying. She was going, ‘You can trust me.’”
Initially they met weekly. Then twice a month. Then every few months. They talked about medical issues and emotional fallout. They talked and connected at a deeper level.
“I understood what she was going through as a young 20-year-old, because I just went through it myself,” Dr. Smith said.
“She understands,” Frody said. “She’s not so much older that she forgot what it was like to be my age again.”
Once again, Frody started to see her future.
During Frody’s recovery, her grandmother bought her a sewing machine.
She soon found her new passion.
She embraced the fashion world and began asking the question: Why not be a fashion designer, showcasing her own couture with city-infused swank?
She created Forge Clothing Line. Color is key. Red and black outfits reflect the pain she has known. Gold and platinum reflect emerging confidence.
On Feb. 10 in New York City, 13 models donned her designs and walked the runway at the emerging designers showcase. That show also featured a dozen other designers.
The event had been less a competition and more of a showcase. It was a way to make connections in the fashion industry. In that, Frody’s participation proved a wonderful success. She met designers from Los Angeles. She had another show in Detroit in early March and yet another is planned.
Soon, Dr. Smith will have her own future to steer. She has board exams this summer and expects to search for a permanent hospital.
Frody isn’t lamenting Dr. Smith’s anticipated departure from the residency clinic.
Each of us must forge our path.
“I’ll be happy for her,” Frody said. “Because I was really blessed to have her come into my life. I can only hope for her to bless someone else like she helped me.”