Some say life is stranger than fiction, but until last winter, Peone Prairie resident DeeAnn Angell Shafer, 56, felt her life was happily ordinary. Then she learned her life had begun with a movie-like plot twist. She’d been switched at birth with another baby.
The blond-haired, blue-eyed Shafer was born May 3, 1953, at Pioneer Memorial Hospital in Heppner, Ore. She went home with the Angell family, growing up as the youngest of six in a family of brunettes. Meanwhile, brown-eyed, brown-haired Kay Rene Reed Qualls, was raised by two blue-eyed parents, the Reeds.
When they were born, the nurses apparently put the babies back in the wrong bassinets after bath time. Marjorie Angell complained, insisting she’d been given the wrong baby. But after repeated assurances, she went home with DeeAnn, who grew up knowing nothing of her mother’s initial instinct.
“I did not know. Not an inkling,” Shafer said. “She raised me as her own.”
Marjorie Angell had told her daughter Juanita, who was 12 at the time, about the suspected switch. “Mom was pretty determined that the baby she got was not the baby she gave birth to,” said Juanita Angell. “But by this time she had bonded with this baby, and that is all there was to it.”
In the Reed household, just 20 miles away, the oldest Reed child, 12-year-old Dorothy, now Dorothy Reed Shaffer, heard claims about a possible switch involving her little sister, Kay Rene.
Their mother had a difficult breach delivery, and then her father died unexpectedly the next day, so she was heavily medicated, said Shaffer. “I’m sure mom never got to see much of her baby the whole time she was in the hospital. She would assume she had the right baby.”
While each mother occasionally shared her suspicions with her eldest children, Shafer and Qualls grew up sheltered from the rumor. When Shafer was 7, the Angells moved to Portland, making a chance meeting slim.
Then, 55 years later and after both sets of parents had died, an elderly woman who’d known both families called Qualls’ brother, Bobby Reed, with her suspicions. That sparked a series of phone calls. DNA testing later confirmed the switch.
Shafer’s reaction, she said, was disbelief and shock. Then she asked if she was still invited to the Angell family reunion.
The two families have since had several family reunions, including a 56th birthday celebration in May.
When they met, the women said, they felt as though they’d known each other their whole lives.
They call each other “swisters” and have found familiarity in each other’s voices, physical features and mannerisms. Along with family resemblance, Qualls smacks her gum like one of her biological sisters, Betty Angell Harris, while Shafer laughs and talks with her hands like her biological sister, Dorothy Reed Shaffer.
“DeeAnn is like my sister. My sisters and brother are just like her – all of them mixed up together in another person,” said Qualls. ”And I look just like her sisters and brothers that she was raised with.”
The family resemblance between Qualls and her biological sister Juanita Angell was so strong that Shafer said she didn’t need a DNA test, which she joked stands for “DeeAnn is not an Angell.” But Qualls wanted the scientific proof.
They were tested this spring, and it confirmed they’d been switched. Since then, the women said their emotions have gone up and down, so they’ve turned to each other for support.
“We have a bond no one else has. We feel the same way,” said Shafer.
At first, said Qualls, “it felt like everything I did had been a lie, that it wasn’t my life or shouldn’t have been my life. The good memories I’ve had shouldn’t have been mine.”
When those thoughts intrude, she calls Shafer, who often has the same feelings. They reassure each other, then focus on the positive.
“Why waste time trying to think what if?” said Qualls.
It helps, said Shafer, that they both had happy childhoods and good family relationships. “She was loved as much as I was.”
“Maybe they loved us so much they couldn’t give us up,” said Qualls.
Both women said the hardest part is not getting to meet their biological parents. This spring Qualls asked Shafer to go her parents’ graves. “I had a hard time going to the grave knowing they weren’t my biological parents,” said Qualls. “But they were my parents.”“You go forward and make the best of it,” said Shafer.
So the families have had dinner and birthday cake. They’ve sung karaoke, shared family stories and met cousins, aunts, uncles, children and grandchildren.
“We’ve all bonded,” said Shafer, “like we were a family of our own.”
This story, said Dorothy Shaffer, “only happens in the movies or to somebody else. But things are still the same, except we extended our family and made it larger. We have become one big happy family.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter