Editor’s Note: John Bogna spoke with Amber one on one to write this piece from a firsthand perspective. He, too, recently moved to the Houston area, around eight months ago.
A few Thursdays ago, I wound up on the phone with someone I’ve never met, talking about what exactly a birth doula does, hurricane Harvey, the World Series and what it means to feel at home.
About a week before my conversation with Amber Piller, I was on assignment at the Astros World Series Victory Parade, shooting photos, talking with fans, listening to their stories and having a little fun at work.
But one of the most interesting stories I heard came a little later.
After I came home with around 1,300 photos, I posted some of my favorites to Instagram.
A comment on my favorite shot from that day, an image of a man waving a huge Astros flag in the middle of the street, caught my attention, because it seemed to perfectly encapsulate the feeling running through the thousands of people who showed up to celebrate.
“We moved here from Nebraska just under two years ago. Its been such a hard transition. I’ve been so homesick. But then Harvey happened. My entire family spent 10 days working at our church-turned-shelter. Seeing this city’s strength and resiliency…for each other started to change that homesickness. Then the Astros united [us] all and gave us something to celebrate. Houston has captured my heart. Houston is HOME.”
I found out the comment came from a Houston transplant named Amber Piller, and it struck a chord with me; having just moved here myself in March, I was curious to know more about someone else’s experience.
Perhaps innately enticed by the chance to empathize with fellow Houston newcomers, I reached out to her through Instagram to see if I could interview her about the move to Houston, surviving both hurricane Harvey and Game Five of the World Series, and coming out the other side as part of that celebrating crowd not so many Fridays ago.
She was happy to oblige.
“It was really just a whole bunch of things coming together at the right time,” she told me on the phone, with the sound of her children playing in the background.
She said she and her husband always talked about getting out of Omaha, but right before they left, things looked to be getting more serious at his job in the electrical industry.
If he were locked into a position with more responsibility, they’d have to stay, so they started looking around, giving more serious consideration to a move than ever before.
But, then, another piece fell into place:
“I had a birth in Nebraska that was particularly rough for me, and decided I didn’t want to work in that area any more.”
She explained how, while a midwife comes with a certain amount of clinical training and medical responsibility to the client, a doula doesn’t.
Instead, their role is one of both physical and emotional support, and they work in addition to a midwife and/or a doctor; they assist a pregnant woman before, during and sometimes after pregnancy.
And Pillar said, sometimes, it can be very emotionally taxing work:
“Its taken up to a week before I could feel like myself again,” Piller said of some particularly difficult births.
She’s attended 50 of them so far in her career, some home births, but most through hospitals. Piller also said she is trained as a ‘bereavement doula,’ helping families through a stillbirth, or with a baby who didn’t have long to live outside the womb.
But, for the most part, she said the births she attends go smoothly, and she considers it an honor to participate in bringing her family clients happiness.
Piller said she gravitated to the doula field after her first child arrived through a c-section, with her research into ways to prevent it from happening again in the future, leading her to study more about what a doula does.
She said she studied on her own for years, learning what she could from those already doing the job and eventually started her own business.
After the aforementioned rough Nebraska experience clinched her family’s decision to move, she and her husband decided to relocate to the Copperfield area of Houston.
They didn’t exactly regret their decision to move, but homesickness persisted, and the Pillers wondered whether they would become emotionally invested in their new city.
“I remember we were out on a walk, right before Harvey hit, talking with each other about how we didn’t really feel attached to Houston yet,” Piller said.
Little did they know, the coming storm would bring about just that change in their lives and the lives of so many others:
The Monday after Harvey first hit Houston, Piller’s church opened up a shelter at its sister site, and, that night, she said she made it her mission to get there.
Five minutes from their home and still accessible after the rain, the entire family eventually made their way there to help out.
For the next 10 days, Amber said she and her husband traded off working the shelter’s night shift and spent the days collecting supplies; the first night, she said air mattresses and sleeping bags hastily donated by neighbors able to stay in their homes were all they could provide for the overflow of people looking for somewhere safe and dry.
Amber recalled people “literally being dropped off by the truckload, and the trucks were leaving.”
She described seeing so many people displaced as “heartbreaking, and chaotic and challenging all around.”
But, like she’s learned on the job, she said she, her family and everyone else at the shelter pulled together to make the best of it.
Her daughter helped take care of and walk the roughly 60 dogs housed at the shelters, and her 9-year-old son helped with supplies. Her 5-year-old son busied himself with making friends among the shelter staff and residents – an undoubtable morale booster.
“A lot of the people at our church who I probably wouldn’t have spent time with, and some of the people in the shelter too, became friends,” Amber said.
The Pillers also raised around $6,000 from friends and relatives back in Nebraska to help pay for shelter supplies.
All in all, Piller said it was an experience that solidified Houston’s place in her and her family’s hearts as their new home.
“[It] kinda flipped a switch, and I thought, ‘Wow, this place is really cool, I wanna be a part of it,’” she said. “It’s hard to explain just what it does to your heart when you see people coming together like that.”
Months later, on the day of the Astros’ championship parade, her family experienced the same feeling of unity brought out by the strom.
This time, thought, people came together out of joy and a different kind of necessity – to celebrate the Crush City Champs, almost as though Harvey dragged Houston on a slog though a deep valley, and the city emerging on the other side just in time for the parade.
I lost track of how many people told me how badly the city needed that win.
Aside from cheering on her sister’s college softball team, Amber said she wasn’t a huge sports fan before coming to Houston.
But she said she soon found herself caught up in the World Series mania, even attending the infamous Game Five with her family.
“After what the city had been through it was really cool to have that kind of victory,” Amber said of the World Series, going on to remember how people at the parade “were high five-ing and hugging, it was great.”
“I don’t feel homesick like I did even three months ago,” she added.
Above all, The Pillers’ story reminds us of how someplace new can become home, even if we didn’t think it could. Its the story of a lot of people that came to Houston and rode with it through the ups and downs of the last few months.
Their story is one so many share, riding the waves of disaster and the rebirth of hope as a city together.
Amber is still a practicing doula, though she says she would like to avoid hospitals births in the future, preferring to stick to home births or birthing centers.
She admits its been “kind of slow getting my feet in the door,” explaining there’s more competition in her field here than in Omaha, and she briefly lamented what she described as a whole new political field to navigate, but she remains hopeful for the future.
She jokingly told me on that phone she’d like to become a doula to the stars.
Or at least star athletes:
“If I could doula for an Astro,” she laughed, “That would be great.”
Welcome home, Piller Family. Houston is glad you’re here.