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Mothers’ mentor – Lactation nurse’s legacy bridges generations

By Melissa Wagoner

When Brianna Hupp took a childbirth education class from a nurse, Janet Smith, shortly before the birth of her daughter in 2016, she had no way of knowing just how impactful that meeting would turn out to be.

“Postpartum was nothing like I planned,” Hupp began. “I’m a nurse also and I thought I’d have a handle on it, and I absolutely didn’t.”

Beginning with early labor, at 32 weeks, Hupp’s initial experience with motherhood and breastfeeding, were rough, but through it all Smith was there to help.

“There’s something really humbling about someone holding your boob, latching your baby, and then feeding you and getting you sips of water,” Hupp described. “It’s what we do as nurses, but Janet was just exceptional. Her expertise at one of the hardest times in our life was invaluable.”

Janet Smith holding one of the many babies she helped through nursing.
Janet Smith holding one of the many babies she helped through nursing.

It was also unique. 

“There were other lactation consultants…but she made a huge impact,” Summer Sheldon, Smith’s daughter-in-law, said. Describing the way women flocked to Smith’s side whenever she was in public, often expressing their gratitude for the help she provided when their children were small.

“Pretty much everywhere we went she was like, ‘I helped that lady breastfeed, and that lady breastfeed,’” Sheldon recalled. “There’s a whole generation of kids and a whole generation of moms that she helped.”

Including Sheldon’s own sister, Debbie Gregg, who said without Smith’s help directly after the traumatic birth of her oldest son, Caleb, in 2009, she would have given up on breastfeeding altogether. 

“There is real technique in the early days of breastfeeding,” Gregg pointed out. “Your body is getting used to this new function and the baby is also trying to figure out how to latch on. I was not doing it very well and was very sore, to the point of crying in pain when it was time to breastfeed.”

Thankfully she had Smith’s knowledge and support to get her through.

“… Janet encouraged me to meet with her every couple of days, showed me tips so the baby would latch on properly and gave me other tools to make it easier, like taking fenugreek that would help with my milk production,” Gregg recalled. “She also encouraged fathers on how they can support the new mothers. My husband Troy would come with me during my visits with Janet and she would tell him how he could support me. Give me breaks if I needed it and bottle feed our baby with pumped breastmilk, so I could sleep and rest. She would tell him to make sure that I was eating properly and drinking plenty of water… All of these things made me successful in being able to breastfeed for as long as I could.”

They also enabled Gregg to successfully breastfeed her subsequent children – a set of twins.

“I was able to breastfeed my twins for over a year… Plus I pumped and froze over 1500 ounces of breastmilk,” Gregg said. “I would have never been able to do that without Janet’s help with my first child… Her legacy will be long-lasting.”

That legacy doesn’t center entirely on breastfeeding. 

“She built the lactation department at Silverton into something more than just a lactation department,” Christy Ward, a nurse who trained under Smith in 2004,  said. “It was a community group that connected so many moms and babies and gave them a place to belong.”

Available every Tuesday and Thursday for any breastfeeding mom who wished to come, the support group offered not only physical support with breastfeeding but emotional support with parenting as well.

“It was so nice to have this group of moms who were doing the same thing,” Sheldon said of her own experience attending the moms’ group after the birth of her oldest son in 2008. “Those first years felt like war, and it was so nice to have someone else to go through it with. It was like family, and she created that.”

“Janet is responsible for bringing my ‘mom club’ together,” Hupp added.  “… The moms that I get to do life with, that I talk to every day, that love my girls like their own – I owe that to Janet.”

In a roundabout way, to Smith’s grandmother as well, who influenced her granddaughter to volunteer as a candy striper, even going so far as to sew her the uniform herself.

“She really struggled as a teenager,” Sheldon said, recalling stories she’s been told about Smith’s childhood. “She was really depressed. Then she went to visit her grandmother in Texas, and she said, ‘You can’t just sit here.’”

And so, she didn’t, volunteering in the local hospital at her grandmother’s behest. 

“And that’s how she got into nursing,” Sheldon finished.

But it wasn’t quite that simple because, it wasn’t until she had children of her own that she made the choice to actually attend nursing school, first putting herself through college, then becoming a working mom when she was hired at Silverton Hospital.

“But she was so persistent about it,” Sheldon said, recalling the way a new focus by the hospital’s administration, adding more postpartum and birth support, would eventually lead to Smith’s discovering her true passion.

“She spent about 12 years working at the lactation and baby’s clinic in Silverton,” Sheldon said. When the hospital’s focus changed again, she was forced to find work elsewhere, moving to Sandy and a job with Kaiser Permanente.

“The plan was she was going to move to Silverton and write a book, lead support groups and do mama and baby care,” Sheldon said of the goals Smith had for the retirement she had begun to plan for. “She even had an LLC.”

But on May 14, 2021, Smith told her family she wasn’t feeling well. Subsequent medical scans uncovered the cause – advanced pancreatic cancer, which had already spread to her liver.

“She died the day she retired,” Sheldon said – March 25, 2022. 

On the heels of her mother-in-law’s passing, Sheldon returned to school to become a licensed professional counselor and continue the legacy Smith began by helping families when they need it most. 

“The tragedy is the community’s loss,” Sheldon said. “And that’s the legacy I feel called to carry on.”

And she’s not the only one.

“Her contribution to the community and young mothers she helped is generational,” Gregg pointed out. “It’s like that parable, if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime. She was a teacher, who taught young mothers the art of breastfeeding, who will be able to teach their daughters and other young mothers. That’s why I believe her impact on the community is generational and ever-lasting.”

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