After baby’s death, Michelle Skillings finds strength to fight for her own life
Five weeks into her program at Farrell’s eXtreme Bodyshaping in Bellevue, Michelle Skillings was ready to quit. She ran alongside a coach, but each step was so hard. She wanted to give up.
“Do this for Brayden, if not for you,” her coach said.
Brayden. Her sweet baby boy, whose presence was with her through the weight loss surgery, the recovery, her quest to be a healthy mother for her children.
Brayden, her guardian angel, who never made it to 7 weeks.
Skillings put her head down and finished her mile. Oct. 22, 2008, was the hardest day of her life. Compared to that, this was easy.
For as long as she can remember, Skillings was overweight. From adolescence onward, life was riddled with weight loss attempts — TOPS with her grandmother in middle school, Weight Watchers at 16, weight loss pills at 18, the Atkins diet, Weight Watchers again. “You name it, I tried it,” she said.
Her mother, whose weight issues mirrored her own, asked her to attend a weight loss surgery seminar at the Methodist Physicians Clinic. Such a life-changing, big surgery scared her. She passed, even as her mother underwent the surgery herself. After she and husband Mike celebrated the birth of their first-born, Noah, Skillings flirted with the idea of surgery again. Then Brayden was born, and taking care of a newborn and 2-year-old took priority.
After maternity leave, Skillings returned to work as a real estate marketer. A few days later, Brayden, just under 7 weeks old, went down for a nap at daycare and never woke up.
Months later, his death would pass to the ill-defined, unsatisfying category of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. Doctors cannot explain what causes SIDS, defined as the unexpected death of a child under the age of 1. Skillings would never know why her baby died.
In the wake of that agonizing loss, Skillings shut down. It was too hard to talk to even those closest to her. Focusing on Noah carried her through.
Slowly, the cloud of grief lifted. She let her walls down enough to talk about her loss and stopped pushing people away. Soon, she and husband Mike were pregnant with their third son. It was after she had Chase that she knew something had to give. At nearly 400 pounds, her blood pressure was dangerously high and she was flirting with diabetes. “I hated what I had become,” she said.
One day, she sat on the living room floor watching her two sons play. She realized if she wanted to be active with her boys and live to see them grow, she had to make a change. Even though the thought of surgery still terrified her, she went to the Methodist Bariatric Surgery seminar again and spoke to Dr. Brad Winterstein, who helped allay her fears. The day of her sleeve gastrectomy in May 2012, she almost chickened out. But she knew she had a guardian angel: Brayden.
“I kept telling myself that I survived the hardest thing in life with my son’s death, so I could do anything,” she said. “I decided I survived that loss for a reason. It was time to honor my son’s memory and to be a good mother and put my health first.”
A sleeve gastrectomy works by surgically removing a large portion of the patient’s stomach. Skillings describes it as going from a football-sized stomach to a hot dog. The smaller stomach size limits the amount of food one can eat, making the person feel full after small amounts of food.
As Skillings relearned how foods affected her new, smaller stomach, she continued to receive support from the Methodist program. At each weigh-in, her tally of total pounds lost jumped upward. At six months, she’d lost 100 pounds. It was the proudest she had ever felt. It finally clicked: “I was doing this for me, to save me.”
Under her doctor’s direction, Skillings began exploring different gyms and fitness programs. One of the coaches at Farrell’s encouraged her to sign up for an intense 10-week program. Each time she was challenged with more push-ups, sit-ups, punches and kicks, she realized “it was not going to kill me, and I actually liked it.” For the first time, she found herself looking forward to working out.
Noah and Chase kept her going. After she’d lost the first 100 pounds, 7-year-old Noah gave her a hug — touching his hands behind her back for the first time. He then touched his mother’s face with both of his hands.
“Mommy, I can touch my hands around you,” he said. “I’m very proud of you.”
It took a tearful Skillings’ breath away.
Today, Skillings is 200 pounds lighter than she was at her heaviest. At 34, she says she is still discovering who she is and what she’s made of. All those years of beating herself up for failing at the gym, for hating what was in the mirror, are behind her now. She’s confident now.
Skillings says Brayden made all of this possible. She believes that in every situation, no matter how tragic, there is a lesson to be learned. Brayden’s death taught his mother how to fight for her own life.
“Noah and Chase are my drive, but Brayden is why I won’t ever quit,” she said. “I survived every parent’s worst nightmare. I got the awful call saying my son was dead, and it didn’t kill me.”
“If I were to let his death destroy me, the lesson I could have learned would have been missed. For me, my drive was I wanted my sons to learn that yes, my mom got knocked down, but look at all she’s done since.”
For three years, Skillings has served as co-director of the Nebraska SIDS Foundation. The organization serves to increase awareness of SIDS and support grieving families. The position enables Skillings to talk about Brayden as she supports other parents in the club that no parent wants to join. She can tell them that they, too, have the strength to survive a tragedy.
Sometimes on a clear night, Skillings looks to the stars. Five years after her son’s death, Skillings realizes that despite the challenges and hardships, she fought to pick herself up from unbearable grief and came out on the other side. “I find the brightest star in the sky, and I tell myself, ‘There’s Brayden,’” she said.
She reminds herself that he’s watching his mommy.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is the leading cause of death among children aged 1 month to 1 year. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development defines SIDS as the sudden death of an infant under 1 year of age which remains unexplained after thorough investigation.
SIDS claims the lives of nearly 2,500 infants each year in the United States.