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.