By Madoline Markham
Photos by Kathryn Bell & Contributed
Our story starts on a hot summer night in 1992 when Shawna Taylor woke up in labor, eight weeks before her due date. Her son Brent weighed a little under 5 pounds when he was born on Aug. 2, and his lungs weren’t yet fully developed.
It was December by the time Brent would be able to come home and then only for 11 days before he needed to be hospitalized again for his breathing. At Children’s of Alabama he would be put on a ventilator, and remain on it until he was almost 18 months old.
At the time Shawna also had a 4–year-old son, Cody, and a 2-year-old daughter, Sam, who also has special needs, and she had very little support from family. There was no one to watch Sam and Cody so she could visit Brent at Children’s. This meant that she rarely got to see her youngest son in the hospital in the months to come, and as he turned 1 then 2 years old and was still in the hospital.
“I was headed for a divorce with two children (with special needs), and I couldn’t do it,” she says. “It was just hard.”
Jane Duer would enter Brent’s story in 1993. At that time, she was a child life teacher for hospitalized children ages newborn to 5 years at Children’s of Alabama. As part of her role, she worked with ventilator-dependent patients in the chronic area of the pulmonary care unit to help them achieve important early milestones, and she also enjoyed meeting parents and helping to provide them with resources in their community when it was time for their child to be discharged. Little did she know that she would soon be one of those parents.
Jane met Brent when he was 12 months old and she received a child life consultation request from his doctor upon his arrival to the pulmonary care unit. As part of her preparation for the consultation, she learned of his medical history with underdeveloped lungs due to prematurity, a diagnosis of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) that led to reactive airway disease, respiratory failure, and long-term mechanical ventilation, which caused bronchopulmonary dysplasia, or scarring of the lungs.
As she began to work with Brent and other professionals on his developmental team, Jane also learned his family was unable to visit, but she didn’t know why. She did know that Brent must have had a loving family because she saw a photo of his older brother and sister placed in his crib.
Brent wasn’t the only one of Jane’s patients without parents visiting, but she says God placed it in her heart to pray for Brent and his family, and specifically for his mother to have what she needed to be able to visit and eventually take him home.
In the spring of 1995, teaming up with women from a Bible study she was in, Jane sent Shawna a grocery store gift card for Mother’s Day and clothing for her kids, and told her they were praying for Brent and her family. Soon after, Jane contacted Shawna and asked her if there was anything that she or the hospital could do to support her so that she could more easily come to visit Brent. When Shawna said she needed childcare for her two older children, Jane found a woman from her church who was in nursing school to watch them, and she sent Shawna vouchers to buy gas so she could come to Children’s.
But one day in early June before that visit took place, Jane had another phone conversation with Shawna. At that time Shawna asked Jane if she had children of her own. Jane replied that she and her husband were hoping to adopt soon, and in fact they had already been approved to adopt and were just waiting for a baby. (The backstory on that is that Jane and her husband, Chuck, had found they could not get pregnant, but they’d also always been open to adopting and even adopting a child with special needs.)
That’s when Shawna admitted to Jane that she’d been wanting to give Brent up for adoption because she knew she couldn’t care for him like he needed to be cared for. Would Jane be interested in adopting Brent? Shawna asked.
Jane was shocked but agreed to talk to her husband about it over a long weekend on a trip they’d already planned to take that week and suggested that she and Shawna would both need to talk to Brent’s hospital social worker. They made plans to meet the following Monday morning.
After she hung up the phone with Shawna, Jane immediately called Chuck. “Are you ready to be a father?” she asked. “Like now?”
Chuck is usually more cautious and skeptical and Jane more likely to jump into things less cautiously, but Chuck was on board with adopting Brent from the start too.
When Shawna and Jane met with the hospital social worker that next Monday, both were still ready to move forward with the adoption process. At that point, Brent was no longer on a ventilator but was still on oxygen 24/7, and Jane didn’t know how long Brent would have to remain hospitalized.
As it turned out, though, Brent had been released by his doctor for discharge the previous Friday. Due to this turn of events, he was able to remain there until Jane and Chuck were able to obtain temporary custody and receive the discharge planning education needed for them to take Brent home. This process took place within just a couple of weeks, and in late June 1995, home Brent went with Jane and Chuck, just about six weeks shy of his third birthday. On August 9, just a week after his third birthday, Brent’s adoption was finalized.
Fast forward to today. Brent Duer will turn 29 on August 2, and as Jane and Chuck will tell you, he’s never met a stranger. He’s also always known who his family is. He knows Jane and Chuck are his mom and dad by adoption. He’s always known Shawna is his birth mom and Cody and Sam his brother and sister, first from the photos Jane would show him growing up and the cards Shawna sent on his birthdays, and now from seeing them in person. And he knows his “hospital family” and two honorary aunts, the nurses who cared for him for so long and who he’d continue to see at his birthday parties in the first few years after his adoption.
After going home with Jane and Chuck, Brent had to return to the hospital several times in the first six months, and at one point he was hospitalized for nearly a month. After age 7 though, Brent wasn’t hospitalized again, his respiratory problems went away, and he has been very healthy since. But because of his severe chronic respiratory illness in the first three years of life, his brain had lost oxygen at a critical developmental stage, which led to developmental delays in early childhood and learning and social skill difficulties in later years.
As a resident of Helena, Brent received special education services through Shelby County Schools from the age of 3 through age 19. He attended preschool special education classes at the Linda Nolen Learning Center, and then Helena Elementary, Helena Intermediate, Riverchase Middle and Pelham High School. During his junior and senior years at Pelham, he also attended the Shelby County Technical School in the Hospitality and Culinary program. After working part-time his senior year, Brent graduated from Pelham High in 2012 with an Occupational Diploma, and he has been employed in some capacity ever since.
For the past three years, Brent has worked part-time as a dishwasher at Hickory Tavern at Brookwood Village, and last fall October 2020, he moved into his own apartment just a few minutes away from his parents that he now shares with the cat he adopted, Zeus.
But that’s not all. Brent earned his black belt in Taekwondo when he was 18 and got his driver’s license at 19. After high school, he was accepted into the Emerging Young Leaders program sponsored by People First of Alabama, a nonprofit organization that helps adults with disabilities advocate for themselves and others. Through this program, Brent developed leadership skills and spoke to high school special education students about how to advocate for themselves after high school, and he participated in and spoke at organized disability events at the state capitol. He was also member of a panel of speakers at the Alabama Disability Conference one year.
Throughout Brent’s childhood, adolescence and as an adult, everyone who has ever met him always notes his sense of humor and how he cares for others—traits his whole family agrees make Brent who he is. In fact, one of the things Brent loves to do when not working is drive to Opelika to visit with and help out his Pawpaw and Mimi, Max and Sally Duer. When Brent was adopted, he couldn’t attend childcare due to his health, so Chuck stayed home with him, with the help of his mom, Sally, who was a nurse. Taking care of Brent for the first two years of his adoption fostered a special bond between him and his Mimi, and now Brent helps take care of her and Pawpaw.
Jane had always told Brent he could meet his biological mom whenever he was ready, and at age 16 he told her he was. So Jane reached out to Shawna, and before long they set up a time to all meet at a Texas Roadhouse in Pelham. This was just the beginning of a relationship between Shawna, Cody, Sam and Brent. Both families got together for some birthday celebrations following the initial reunion meeting, and Shawna and Sam attended Brent’s high school graduation.
Brent was there after Cody’s oldest son Zander was born and at a gender reveal party for Cody’s younger son Phoenix, where Brent got to meet his birth father for the first time. And even when Brent isn’t physically present with his biological family, he’s still with them in other ways. Sam keeps a photo of Brent in her wallet, and Cody has Brent’s name tattooed on his shoulders.
Shawna will tell you Jane is Brent’s mom, that she raised him, and that she always tries to respect that. But Jane has always wanted Brent to know Shawna too. When Jane asked Shawna about having Brent’s adoption story shared in this publication, Shawna told Jane that she did what I thought was right for Brent and her other children.
“I don’t think Sam or Brent would have gotten the attention they both needed from me if I hadn’t made that difficult decision,” she wrote Jane. “I believe you walked into my life for a reason, and it wasn’t just to adopt Brent. You gave me the opportunity to give Sam the attention she needed. So for that reason, I would love to see our story in a magazine.”