Growing up Liz Smith had a very clear picture of her future. She dreamed of a career in nursing and undoubtedly knew she wanted to become a mom one day. Like many women, she had painted a picture.
“My definition of family was always, ‘In my 20’s, I’ll get married, have kids, and have a big family like the one I grew up with’”, said Liz. “I think a lot of women can relate to the pressure that we feel that there’s an order to do things.”
However, fate had another plan for Liz’s journey to motherhood.
Liz graduated from Villanova University in 1996 and continued her education at Boston University, receiving her master’s degree in 2007. She made many advances in her career, including opening a small hospital in Richmond, VA.
After a long-term relationship ended, Liz decided to move back home to the Boston area. She accepted a position at Franciscan Children’s, where she had volunteered 20 years prior, as the Senior Director of Nursing. While her professional journey was thriving, she couldn’t help but feel that her personal journey was lacking.
Both Liz’s brother and sister had children and, as much as she loved being an auntie to her 13 nieces and nephews, she knew she wanted more. Approaching 40, Liz decided to see a fertility specialist. The specialist was not fazed by her age, being single or doing it on her own. With such positive initial feedback, Liz was shocked and saddened when informed that her labs disqualified her for IVF. “When that door closed quickly and suddenly,” said Liz, “it was a bad day.”
On that same day, another door opened however. Liz met Gisele, a little girl that would change her life forever.
Gisele was born prematurely at just 29 weeks, weighing 1 pound, 14 ounces. She was born with neonatal absence syndrome (NAS), a consequence of being exposed to narcotics during the pregnancy. Gisele was immediately weaned off of the drugs, but faced additional complications from her prematurity in addition to the exposure.
After spending almost three months in the NICU on ventilator support she developed an oral aversion. This reluctance to eat is common in premature babies who’ve never experienced pleasure from feeding. Needing continued care for her complex medical needs, Gisele was transferred to Franciscan Children’s.
Liz instantly bonded with Gisele and visited her frequently through all her complications and setbacks. “I went to see her every day,” she said, “It was kind of my reward after a long workday.”
The state claimed custody of Gisele in October 2016, shortly after her arrival at Franciscan Children’s. Gisele’s birth parents were facing an uphill battle of addiction and were not fit to care for a child.
Given that Gisele’s neurological prognosis was uncertain and there were delays in developmental milestones, it was clear that Gisele needed to experience life outside the hospital to thrive. With guidance and support from co-workers, family, and friends, Liz decided to foster Gisele.
When Liz first began fostering Gisele the goal was reunification with her birth parents. This meant that Geisel’s birth parents had weekly visits with her, supervised by the Department of Children and Family Services. The end goal was to reunite her with her family. Gradually the visits decreased and a few months into fostering the goal changed to adoption due to the lack of bonding and progression in the parent’s efforts.
“I remember certain nights, one in particular, when she was hooked up to the feed and I was walking by the mirror and the thought went into my head of losing her,” explained Liz, “I had to go there in my mind because it was still a reality, but it made me sick to my stomach. You can’t just love a certain percentage. You have to give it your all.”
When Gisele’s birth parents did not appeal their rights being terminated and no biological relatives were fit to adopt her it became clear that Liz’s life was about to change dramatically. “When I got the call that the parents’ rights were terminated, I imagined that it would be a day of relief,’’ said Liz. “And it was a day I was really sad. I was really happy. But I was really sad for them. I was gaining her but they were losing her. And to try to battle addiction and being a mom, that’s impossible.”
On October 18, 2018 –coincidentally, Liz grandmother’s birthday — her family gathered in the Brockton courthouse to finalize the adoption.
The judge stood up and said, “When a judge walks in the room, everyone stands out of respect. But today I stand in respect for you, Liz because you deserve the respect from this room. A birthing day is a miracle. But adopting a child from miles away is destiny. That’s what brought you two together.”
It wasn’t until the judge actually read her name aloud as “Gisele Katherine Smith” and called her mom that she felt her dream of becoming a mom had come true.
For Liz, it’s hard to remember life before Gisele. “I remember some of the painful pieces at times, but when I look at her I’m so happy I can’t believe I was ever so upset. I can’t remember the hard times because she makes me so happy,” explained Liz.
Liz cherishes the little moments she shares with her daughter. It’s the moments she doesn’t experience as an aunt or as a nurse that make motherhood so special. “The things that made her giggle and laugh randomly, the times that she’ll notice that I’m sad and come up to me and give me a hug just out of the blue, or seeing her running to me from daycare. Those are the moments I love.”
Since Liz and Gisele first met, Gisele has made tremendous medical strides. She still receives most of her nutrition from her feeding tube, but she has also started eating by mouth. She’s developed a taste for pizza and avocados recently. “If you told me a year ago she would be asking for pizza I would not have believed you,” said Liz, “She’s doing remarkable, it’s just a slow progression, but in the right direction.”
Their journey to becoming a family was not an easy one — they faced some incredible medical and legal challenges along the way — but thanks to Franciscan Children’s, Liz and Gisele have found each other and built a family.
Liz and Gisele’s inspiring story of love was chronicled on the TODAY Show on NBC. Watch their incredible story come to life in the video below.