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It's been less than two years since Liz Smith met Gisele, but the nurse can't remember life before she adopted her daughter — "she's been such a big part of it," Smith says with a smile.
Smith, 45, grew up with two dreams: to be a pediatric nurse and a parent. While she was able to achieve her first goal, and has been a nurse for 22 years, she spent years pursuing the second and had almost given up hope that it would ever happen.
“Becoming a nurse was easy, but becoming a mom was not,” Smith told the Third Hour of TODAY.
As she approached her 40th birthday, Smith's career was thriving while her personal life was in flux. Recently single, Smith was encouraged by her sister to pursue motherhood on her own. An initial visit with a fertility specialist seemed promising. "[The doctor said] 'You're healthy and have the ovaries of a 30-year-old,'" recalls Smith.
But after many unsuccessful attempts at getting pregnant — including sperm donation, IUI and IVF — Smith put the idea of becoming a mom behind her. "I put it in the back of my mind and got busy with work as I always do," Smith recalls, tearfully.
That's when a dream job opportunity brought her back to her hometown of Boston, where she became the Director of Nursing at Franciscan Children's Hospital — and met a patient in desperate need of a foster parent.
“I came out of the medical unit one day and in the stroller was this beautiful little girl,” Smith recalls. “I said to the nurse, ‘Who is this beautiful little angel?'” to which the nurse replied, 'This is Gisele.'” For Smith, it was love at first sight.
Gisele, whose mother exposed her to narcotics during pregnancy, was born at 29 weeks, weighing less than two pounds.
Smith’s nursing expertise put her in a unique position to care for Gisele. When she brought the baby home, Gisele was in withdrawal from heroin and cocaine and was taking in nutrition via a gastrostomy tube 16 hours a day. “She was losing weight quickly," Smith says. "Being born at one pound, 14 ounces, you can imagine you have to catch up."
Smith reserved her personal feelings about the situation, knowing the goal was to reunify Gisele with her parents. But when the parents began to disengage and stopped showing up, it looked like they wouldn’t meet the requirements for reunification. Meanwhile, Smith was becoming attached.
“One night she was hooked up to the feed... and the thought went into my head of losing her. It made me sick to my stomach,” she recalls.
After nine months of Smith fostering Gisele, the state terminated her birth parents' parental rights. Smith describes that day as a "sad and emotional" milestone on her journey to parenthood.
"It hit me, all of a sudden, that my life had changed, my dream was coming true. But [also] that somebody else was losing her and that was really hard, because it wasn’t intentional.”
When Gisele's birth parents did not appeal after 30 days, Smith's path to legal parenthood became real.
“The day I got the phone call with the adoption date was the day that I was jumping up and down,” Smith says. “They said ‘October 18th.’ And it’s my grandmother’s birthday and I just started crying.”
When the judge referred to Smith as "Mom," it finally sunk in. “I think that’s where I realized I was a parent."
Smith says motherhood is better than she ever imagined, pointing to those moments that she didn't have the chance to experience as an aunt or a nurse. "The things that make her giggle, [or] the times that she’ll notice I’m sad and come up to give me a hug, or seeing her wake up in the morning. You love them so much that you can’t imagine anything else.”
Today, Gisele’s health is much improved. She's a happy, bubbly, 2-year-old girl who loves Play-Doh and dancing to “Baby Shark.” She still has the feeding tube, but her appetite has grown.
“If you told me a year ago she would be asking for pizza, I would not have believed you," says Smith. "It’s just slow progression, but in the right direction."
Since moving back to her hometown, Smith is also closer to her own family. As a single mother, she understands now more than ever that it “takes a village” to raise a child.
And though Gisele's time in the family has been relatively brief, Smith says she's changed their whole world: “I don’t think anyone remembers life before Gisele.”