Michelle Lahey Reed: Newborn Cuddler Program Fosters Double the Love

“On December 18, 2014, after 10 months, one week and six days, my family officially adopted Addisyn Sue Reed and Abygail Joy Reed,” exclaimed Michelle Lahey Reed, the  director of risk management services at Community Memorial Hospital in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. “I stand before you, the insanely blessed mother of four!” In 2010, Michelle, a WMU-Cooley Law School accelerated two-year program student and September 2000 graduate, was inspired to create a program in the hospital’s Special Care Nursery, where volunteers would receive training to hold and console special care nursery babies. Watch Michelle tell her touching and joyful story, and read below about her journey from implementing a “Community Cuddlers Program,” to being a foster parent (along with her husband, fellow WMU-Cooley graduate Shane Reed), to her family’s adoption of twins Addisyn and Abygail.

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“It wasn’t long after I started working at Community Memorial Hospital that I sought out Kristin Lebiecki, the director of our Birthing Centers, to ask her if I could maybe hold a baby every now and again. I expected her to question me, or maybe even look at me funny but she didn’t, she just said ‘Of course!  We would love the help!’

In the beginning I would call the Special Care Nursery periodically and ask if they needed a hand. When they did, I could easily hold a precious baby and answer emails or calls from my phone. The special care nursery babies are used to alarms and machines beeping and never minded when my pager sounded. I could hold babies for two minutes or 10 – and it always made my day. There was actually a sticky note in the Special Care Nursery for quite some time with my extension on it.  And the amazing women who work in that unit would call me when they needed someone to rock, feed or just love on a baby. My kids are 12 and nine. Jaxson plays travel hockey and select baseball. Reagyn is a Next Step Company Dancer and a Franklin Prep Pom. The days of cuddling mama are long gone!

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I vividly recall the first baby I cuddled who needed foster care placement. He was born into a not-so-perfect situation and needed a home. I held him more than any other baby I had held before. One of our case managers said, “Michelle, you should look into becoming a foster parent.” I gave her the look. I balked at the idea. I told her I had a full-time job! And two insanely busy children. I said that foster parents were crazy, amazing people and that I was far from crazy, amazing.  I asked her had she not seen the flyers in the elevators? They say “Kids Deserve the Best! Be a Kid Hero!” I pointed out I was not hero material either. Conversation over.

I happened to be present when that baby boy’s foster mother arrived. I expected an angel. Someone full of grace and kindness and patience – an overall incredible human being. The woman who walked in wore jeans. And she was full of questions. And more questions. And shaky. And she looked as if she might throw up at any second. But here she was. Taking home a four-day-old baby boy who needed her. And suddenly I admired her so much.

A few months later there was another baby in need of foster care. And then another. And then another. Each time I was amazed by the people who swooped in to help. The people who took these babies home and cared for them as their own. I was so enamored by how ordinary they were, yet what a phenomenal thing they were doing.

Around this same time we became the Community Hospital Division and my work load increased. My minutes for the babies became few and far between. Kristin and I worked together with Sue Schulke and our volunteers to implement the “Community Cuddlers Program” where our volunteers receive training to hold and console special care nursery babies. I loved that we could do this! As Risk Management, I am forever saying things like ‘No, no thank you! I’m sorry. What? And absolutely not.’ This was something I could wholeheartedly support.

It was also at this time that I had the honor of representing our organization in the Leadership Menomonee Falls Class of 2013. I became very aware of the concept of servant leadership which is where leaders serve others, and in doing so improve themselves. It is also where leaders recognize their responsibility to help those less fortunate than them. Although I had never heard of the term, the concept struck home with me – hard.

I couldn’t get the foster families out of my head. I did research. I made phone calls. I asked questions. I talked to my family and told them I thought we had room in our hearts and in our home and that we too could do this. And to my delight, they all agreed. In June of 2013, my family started the process to become a licensed foster family through Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Community Services.

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Becoming a licensed foster family is a bit of a challenge. After you complete small mountains of paperwork, they send some more. Some duplicate because the originals vanished upon arrival to their office and some new. We provided everything from our medical records to the kids’ report cards to the dog’s most recent vaccinations. We did interviews individually, interviews as a married couple, and interviews as a family. We sat helplessly when they asked our diva daughter what she wanted in a foster child and she ever so specifically laid out her preferences as if she were ordering a pizza. Following that great experience they called our mothers. They sent reference sheets to our friends. They verified our employment. They scoured our home with a fine tooth comb, and a hockey stick, to be sure every smoke and carbon monoxide detector worked. And, finally, on 11-12-13 my family became an officially licensed Milwaukee County Foster Family.

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Our Green Light date, the date that a child could first be placed in our home, was December 5, 2013. We were so excited at the prospect of having a baby in our home! But no baby came.  No baby came the first week. Or the week after that. Not for Christmas. Not for New Years. Not in January. Those of you who work with me often can probably attest patience is not my strong suit. I reassured my family over and over, and told them surely we would get the chance to help more than one baby.

On February 5, 2014, in the Treiber Conference Room at Community Memorial Hospital, Dennis Pollard was giving his Presidents Forum. At 12:38 p.m. my cell phone buzzed and I stepped out to take the call. I will never, ever in my life forget that call. There were identical twin girls, eight months old, who needed a foster home. They were born at 29 weeks gestation. They had health issues as well as a concerning family dynamic.  Without a lot of details to consider, we had 30 minutes to decide whether we would take them in.

After several phone calls with the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare, my husband, my mom (because, seriously, what girl does not call her mom), and a call to both kids at school, we accepted the placement. Here was our chance to help more than one baby. All at once.

At 5:44 p.m. that evening, Addison and Abigail arrived in the foyer of The Reed Ranch. Never mind who brought them, what they came with and what they didn’t, what they wore, or how they smelled. They were in our home. And they were absolutely beautiful. And from the moment that social worker handed them to me, my life forever changed.

I have a fabulous relationship with my one-up, Judi Cranberg. Yes she is my boss, but she is also a beloved friend and confidant. Of all the things I had chatted with her about, I could not quite recall mentioning my quest to be a foster parent. And so, around, oh, say, 9:30 p.m., when I sort of caught my breath, I text her a picture of two gorgeous baby girls fresh and clean in ducky jammies, and I said something along the lines of, ‘I think I may need a few days off.’

I did take two days off work when the twins arrived to figure out, you know, small things like daycare, doctors appointments and what not. But other than a day here and a day there when they were ill or had appointments, I was here at work. It was crucial to me that we get ourselves into a routine. On to a schedule. And that meant work and school and daycare and everyday life. I tried very hard to continue to be the Risk Director everyone knows and loves. To carry on as if two babies, four children in all, wasn’t a challenge at all. Except there were those days when you noticed I was wearing two different shoes. And days when you pointed out a large chunk of formula on the sleeve of my suit jacket. Or my personal favorite, a day I slept almost four hours in a row and I was totally ready to hit the ground running, and arrived at a meeting of my peers with my suit jacket completely inside out. I had wondered why my badge would not hang from my lapel just right.

There were so many things I did not think through. Like that first night when we only had one crib. I was texting my besties like mad praying one of them had hoarder like tendencies such that they had kept a crib or pack-and-play, despite their youngest children being in double digits. I hit pay dirt! Or the next morning when I needed to take my kids to school. Turns out four children, two of which happen to be in infant car seats, and one adult, don’t fit in a midsize sedan. And so I, Michelle Lahey Reed, Director of Risk Management, shoved my 12 year old son in the hatch of my car for the four-mile ride to school. And I will not say it was first and only time.

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When I arrived at work on my 39th birthday, after a night of almost no sleep and what I was sure was yet another ear infection for both girls, I walked into a birthday baby shower. The Quality and Medical Staff Offices had decorated everything pink and my gift was a larger than life basket filled with presents for the twins. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Those who knew we had the girls asked repeatedly if there was anything they could do to help. Many departments gifted the girls with the cutest of outfits and toys. I had the support of so many people across the Froedtert system. I appreciated every inquiry, every word of encouragement, every hug. I am most grateful to Mary Wolbert, my VP, and Judi Cranberg, my Executive Director, for being absolutely amazing to my family throughout this experience.  If they thought I was truly crazy they never said so to me.

I can’t be dishonest. There have certainly been some challenging moments. And not just logistics and every virus possible, but birth parent visits and court dates and hardcore emotions that can never be accurately depicted in a Lifetime movie.

But there have also been some hilarious moments. Imagine the horror my sixth grade son experienced when he watched the Human Growth and Development Video demonstrating the birth of a child. Unbeknownst to my husband and me, Jaxson was convinced that all babies arrived via social worker.

I could stand up here and tell you the highs and lows of foster parenting, but I will spare you. Instead I will tell you that nine months of pregnancy, two times, was a cakewalk compared to 10 plus months in the foster care system. I will tell you that the highs of having Addison and Abigail made every low, every challenge, every battle, every setback, every heartbreak, extremely worthwhile.  I will tell you that I cried more in 10 months than I cried in 10 years. For both good and bad reasons. And I don’t regret a single tear.

As luck would have it, Santa Claus came early for my family. On December 18, 2014, after 10 months, one week and six days, my family officially adopted Addisyn Sue Reed and Abygail Joy Reed! I stand before you, the insanely blessed mother of four!

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I want to tell you that I am ridiculously proud of my family. I will never be able to find the right words to tell you how awesome Jaxson and Reagyn have been to these baby girls. Nor can I adequately describe how emotional it is to see my husband rock and read two gorgeous girls to sleep. I want to tell you how heartwarming it is to hear my dad talk like Donald Duck and see my mom sew christening gowns for two more granddaughters.

I want to reassure you that Jaxson travels safely! I traded in my beloved, hard earned BMW for a 7-passenger minivan, complete with personalized license plates. Both the car salesman and I were a little teary.

I want to tell you that my twins are extraordinary. I think it was Shakespeare who said “though she may be little, she is fierce.” That’s my girls. Small, but mighty. They have overcome so much and come so incredibly far. They are truly a sight to be seen.

I also want to tell you that I do still visit our special care nurseries and rock the babies whenever I can. It’s just that now they are much easier to hand back!

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I want to tell you that I am nobody’s hero. I am a 15 years happily married, south suburban, crazy combination hockey and dance mom who fell head over heels in love with two adorable baby girls. I am technically a giant failure as a foster mother because once those girls were in my arms I had no intention of ever letting them go! I’m not an angel. I’m not a saint. I never set out to be anyone’s inspiration. I am still ‘meanie head’ Michelle in Risk Management. Or as one of our more challenging patients said, ‘That wicked woman with the high hair.’

What I did is what all of you do on a daily basis, I turned a What if, into What is possible.

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