On a bookshelf in Kay Rene Reed Qualls’s home, in a place of prominence, sits a copper plaque representing the Reed family tree. The walls of her living room are lined with photographs of her children, grandchildren and other relatives. And there’s a much-cherished genealogy book, meticulously researched by a second cousin, as well as a handwritten journal of an ancestor’s 1885 covered wagon journey across the country. Family is something Kay Rene has always treasured. “I was ecstatic when I received the genealogy book,” she says. “Now I can’t bear to look at it.”
Last year, Kay Rene discovered that she had been accidentally switched with another baby at birth. “At the age of 56, I’ve learned that the Reeds are not related to me,” she says. “The people I loved for more than a half century and shared a history with are not related to me.” In May 2009, a DNA test proved that the Reeds, who raised Kay Rene, were in fact the biological parents of a woman named DeeAnn Angell Shafer; the couple who raised DeeAnn were Kay Rene’s biological parents. All four parents had died by the time the truth came out.
We are sitting in Kay Rene’s comfortable house in northeastern Oregon, in a canyon so narrow and twisting that there are no long views. Outside, in 104 degree heat, an electrical storm is raging, and Kay Rene’s husband, Rosco, a cattle rancher, is out with his neighbors, perched on top of the canyon ridge to fire-watch. People here tend to be hospitable, and Kay Rene is no exception. Warm and cozy, she wears glasses and has cut her graying hair in a practical short style with bangs. Her kitchen smells of cookies; her granddaughter plays at her feet as we talk. “You grow up, you marry, have children and grandchildren, and then you learn that all these years you’ve been living the life that should have been someone else’s,” Kay Rene says. “How do you deal with that? Why did it happen? Why did we have to find out now?”
THE BABIES WERE born on May 3, 1953, at Pioneer Memorial Hospital in the hamlet of Heppner, Oregon, population 1,420, “the kind of place where you roll up the sidewalk on Saturday afternoons,” says Kay Rene, who works as a new accounts officer at a bank in town. Apparently, the switch occurred when two nurses washed the newborns. Donalda Reed, the woman who would take Kay Rene home and raise her, never expressed doubts about whether the infant girl placed in her arms after a bath that day was her own, perhaps because Donalda had been heavily sedated during a difficult labor. The following day, Donalda’s father died suddenly of a heart attack, and she was sedated again. When she recovered, she returned with Kay Rene to the Reed home in nearby Condon, Oregon.
The other mother, Marjorie Angell, did object, insisting that the newly bathed infant that was brought to her wasn’t hers. But her doubts were dismissed. “She most certainly is,” hospital staff countered. Marjorie asked how much the baby weighed. Six pounds, she was informed. “But my baby weighed more,” she said. (There was a 12-ounce difference between the two.) Even so, Marjorie Angell took the baby back to Fossil, population now 470, about 20 miles from Condon. She named her new daughter DeeAnn and bonded with her. Although she mentioned her suspicion to her friend and neighbor, Iona Robinson, Marjorie had little time to reflect on what might have happened: She had five other children at home, including two-year-old twins. Several years later, Marjorie and her family moved across the state to Portland.
When DeeAnn turned 20, she married Rick Shafer, then a car salesman, and became a homemaker. Last summer DeeAnn and her husband moved to Mead, Washington—hunting country, home to herds of moose and elk. When I go to meet her after visiting Kay Rene, I am struck by the differences between the two women. While Kay Rene has a no-frills style, DeeAnn jokes that she wouldn’t fetch the mail unless her nails and makeup were done. “I’m a girly girl, always have been,” she says. She favors high heels, leopard-print fabrics, short skirts and low necklines. “I’m nothing like the Angells I was raised with,” she says. “I always felt I didn’t belong.” And there was one person from the past who agreed with her, which is how the baby swap eventually came to light.
IN THE SUMMER of 2008, Iona Robinson, the onetime confidante of DeeAnn’s mother, Marjorie, was 89 years old and very frail. For decades, she had kept her opinion to herself—but she had always felt that DeeAnn didn’t belong in the Angell family. She also knew the Reeds, and she believed that their daughter Kay Rene was the spitting image of Marjorie’s oldest daughter, Juanita. At long last, Robinson phoned the Reeds’ son, Bobby, telling him she needed to get something off her chest. “I knew it had to be now or never,” Robinson said afterward. “I felt the families should know before it was too late.”
Bobby Reed “didn’t know what to do,” he says. So for eight months, he did nothing. “I’m an avoider. I don’t like conflict. I don’t like to change things,” he says. “And I was very scared of hurting Kay Rene. I love her with all my heart, and I wanted her to be my biological sister. It was a horribly touchy situation. How do you tell someone they don’t belong to your family?” Finally, he confided in his sisters Dorothy and Carol. The siblings decided that before they said anything to Kay Rene, they wanted to meet DeeAnn. “The moment I saw her, I realized she looked just like my mom,” Bobby says. In March 2009, Bobby broke the news to Kay Rene. She was devastated. “I was very happy being a Reed,” Kay Rene says. “I didn’t want that to change.”
A few days later, she called DeeAnn. It was a conversation neither one knew how to handle. She remembers saying something like, “This is Kay Rene, your switch, er, your swister. We were switched at birth, apparently, or something.”
“That’s what I’m hearing, too,” DeeAnn said.
The two arranged to meet at a restaurant the following weekend. Both brought relatives along for support. Juanita Angell—the oldest of Marjorie’s girls—was not at the lunch, but everyone felt Kay Rene looked like her twin, right down to her short hair and conservative clothes.
BEFORE LONG, Kay Rene and DeeAnn started sorting through clues in their past. At one point, Marjorie Angell had mentioned her suspicions about DeeAnn to Juanita, who was only 12: Juanita never told anyone. Later, neighborhood kids teased DeeAnn about being the only blonde in a family of brunettes. “Are you sure your father wasn’t somebody else?” they asked.
As for Kay Rene, she’d gotten into a fight with her high school biology teacher during a freshman class on genetics. “He told us that two blue-eyed parents couldn’t have a brown-eyed child,” she says. “I told him, ‘Look at me—my parents have blue eyes, and I have brown.’ ” The teacher held his ground, and Kay Rene stormed home later, insisting she must have been adopted. “Of course you’re not,” Donalda Reed had reassured her. “You’re my daughter and you always will be.”
At their first luncheon, DeeAnn saw how much Kay Rene resembled not only Juanita but also the mother who raised her. “She looks at me in exactly the same way,” DeeAnn says. She learned that her biological mother, Donalda Reed, as well as her biological siblings, Dorothy and Carol, had had bad eczema, just as DeeAnn did when she was younger. She discovered that she and Dorothy both talk effusively, with the same dramatic hand gestures. “That was amazing to see,” DeeAnn says. “We laughed a lot at that meeting. Kay Rene brought out her birth certificate, and we didn’t know whether it was mine or hers. I’ve lost the one I had, which is typical of me. We joshed each other, ‘Who’s your Daddy? Who’s your Mama?’ We had to make a joke out of it. What else could we do?”
The two made plans to settle the question with DNA testing, but DeeAnn left the restaurant convinced she already knew what the tests would find. Kay Rene, however, still held out hope that she was a Reed. “Waiting for the results was like waiting after a cancer screening,” she says. “My emotions were raw. I’d be at work, and I’d have to go outside and have a crying jag. I’d try to compose myself and come back in, because you can’t do that at work.”
Finally, about three weeks later, the DNA report arrived. Kay Rene, who has her mail sent to the bank because delivery is easier there, was at her desk when she was handed the letter. She went out to her car to open it. “At the very bottom there was a brief summary I will never forget,” Kay Rene says. “Just a couple of lines that read: ‘Kay Rene Reed is zero percent related to the Reed siblings. And DeeAnn Angell is 99.9 percent related to the Reeds.’ I was stunned.” She stopped long enough to inform her manager that she needed to leave, then drove home through a torrent of tears. “It hurt so much,” she says. “I wasn’t even one tenth of one percent related to the Reeds. Absolutely nothing. I screamed at God, asking why He did this to us. Then I went out and washed all the vehicles on the ranch, which are always filthy and dusty. And got sunburned in the process.” Afterward, she was so wiped out that she fell asleep on the couch. Her husband found her there when he came home.
“If you’d grown up with the Angells in Portland, then I’d never have met you,” he told her. “We wouldn’t have had our children or our grandkids. Think of all the wonderful things that happened in our lives together.”
MEANWHILE, DeeAnn, who had initially taken the news in stride, started waking up during the night in tears. She felt as if she had lost her mother all over again. “I didn’t know who I was,” she says. “This was an emotional earthquake, as if I couldn’t trust the ground under my feet.” The women have grown extremely close, frequently calling and e-mailing each other. “Kay Rene and I counsel each other,” DeeAnn says. “I love Kay Rene. I feel like she’s my best friend in the whole wide world, which is not surprising, since we’ve lived each other’s lives.”
Kay Rene admits she was scared of DeeAnn at first. “She is beautiful. I’m not. I was afraid the men in my family would be slobbering over her. I feared she might displace me.” That didn’t happen. “There’s no point in being angry anymore,” Kay Rene says.
But Kay Rene’s 33-year-old son, John, took the news hard, she says. “I’m a Reed, we were raised Reeds, that’s all there is to it,” he insisted when the DNA results came back. “My grandma and grandpa may be dead, but they were my grandma and grandpa. Nothing can change that.” John, who is a loan officer in the same bank where his mother works, took his time before telling his three children about the switch.
Kay Rene sympathizes. “It is really hard to accept that the man and woman I hugged and kissed every night before I went to bed as a child were not my mom or my dad,” she says. “Am I now supposed to view them as strangers?” For a while, Kay Rene found it difficult to visit her parents’ graves. “I used to go all the time to change the flowers,” she says. After she learned about the switch, she stopped for a time. “Finally, I made myself go back. I loved them, they were wonderful parents, so how could I not?”
People constantly ask the pair of them how they feel about what happened. “I’m intrigued by the science of this, nature versus nurture,” Kay Rene says. “I now understand why I didn’t get any of the looks, and where my acne and glasses came from. I chew my fingernails; so did my biological mother. I’m also much blunter than my Reed sisters, just as my biological family is. And now I know where my son got his personality, the quick comebacks, the humor.” But her roots, she maintains, are where she was raised—with the Reeds. “We are still just picking our way through it all, trying to find a course that will work for us,” she says. “There’s nothing we can do to change what happened. We’re both lucky that our lives, even if they weren’t meant to be ours, have been good.”
Jan Goodwin is an award-winning journalist and author based in New York.