Tufts MC nurse gives love, stability to babies born with a drug addiction through fostering, adoption
As a nurse and Professional Development Director in the Tufts Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), Shelly Sepulveda, RN, has a deep passion for caring for the smallest and sickest of babies. But it’s more than the compassionate care she provides inside the NICU that makes Shelly so extraordinary. It is what she has done when many of these babies are ready to leave the NICU that truly sets her apart.
Over the past decade, Shelly and her wife Tami (a former NICU nurse of 20 years herself ) have opened up their home and their lives to NICU babies who have no safe place to go upon discharge. In that time they’ve fostered 16 children, three of whom they ultimately adopted; a fourth adoption of a toddler who spent four months in the Tufts MC NICU and the past two years in foster care with the Sepulvedas, is in process. Every one of these children was born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS)—narcotic withdrawal resulting from maternal drug use during pregnancy.
“We are in the midst of one of the worst epidemics of opioid abuse in this country’s history; the number of babies born with this condition has quadrupled in the past several years,” said Chief of Newborn Medicine Jonathan Davis, MD. “Shelly has gone above and beyond any reasonable expectations in her commitment to helping these children who need the highest level of care and attention.”
Many NAS kids have severe long-term health problems and developmental issues and the Sepulvedas’ children are no exception—seven-year-old Abby was born with HIV; seven-year-old Shaelin has ADHD, as does the couple’s oldest and only biological child, 10-year old Sam; six-year-old Tyler required a craniotomy at six months to restructure his skull so his brain could grow; and the two-year-old boy Shelly and Tami are in the process of adopting was recently diagnosed with autism and requires 17 hours of therapy per week.
“It’s not simple or easy,” Shelly admitted. “But these kids are worth it. We can’t imagine our lives without these children and I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have them in our lives. They have grounded us and have defined who we are as a family.”
A Life-changing Tragedy
The Sepulvedas’ passion for giving NAS babies an opportunity for a better life was first kindled when both women worked in a NICU at a hospital in Arizona in the early 2000’s. Tami cared for a baby named
Isaac, who tragically died from neglect and mistreatment after being discharged from the NICU into the foster system. Tami and Shelly were deeply affected by Isaac’s death and vowed to make it their life’s work to prevent this sad situation from recurring.
“We knew we had to take action so that something positive came out of this tragedy,” Shelly said.
Fostering and Adoption
So the Sepulvedas set out on the long road to becoming a certified foster family. Upon satisfying all the requirements—including 10 weeks of foster care classes and a Department of Children & Families home study—Shelly and Tami were approved for foster care. While at first they did not intend to adopt—the adoption process is long and complicated—Shelly and Tami grew to love the children in their care and were overjoyed to give a permanent home to those with no other options.
“I was extremely fortunate to grow up ina loving, supportive family,” said Shelly. “These kids deserve a chance to experience the same happy childhood that I had.”
Advancing the Cause
In addition to fostering and adopting NAS babies, Shelly and Tami also are committed to promoting awareness of foster care and advocating for increased community participation in bettering the lives of these children.
“Foster kids have nothing, not even a blanket,” said Shelly. “People can help in many ways in addition to fostering and adoption—through donations of clothes, participation in mentorship programs and public advocacy in state and local government. Many of these kids’ parents and grandparents were in foster care too. Our goal is to motivate families to make a difference, help break the cycle and have a real impact on these children’s lives and futures. We want people to hear our story and say, ‘if they can do it, we can do it too!’”
“We are the Lucky Ones”
The Sepulveda’s advocacy efforts have been buoyed by the tremendous outpouring of support they have received from friends, family and colleagues.
“Everyone in the Tufts MC NICU—and throughout the organization—has been so incredibly kind and supportive,” said Shelly. “But when people say how fortunate our kids are to have us, we tell them that we are really the lucky ones to have these children in our lives. They are the ones that fulfill and complete us. We don’t see ourselves as heroes.”
There are four young children—and countless others—who would respectfully disagree.
To learn more about fostering and adoption, please visit the websites of the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange (www.mareinc.org), the Department of Children and Families (www.mass.gov/eohhs/gov/departments/dcf/) or Adopt US Kids (www.adoptuskids.org).