Shelly Cawley slipped into a near-fatal coma after the birth of her child in September 2014.
The then 23-year-old from Concord, North Carolina, had just had an emergency C-section and doctors had to put her under. After several hours, they were getting worried that she hadn’t woken up.
Her husband, Jeremy Cawley, 35, remembers feeling helpless standing at his wife’s bedside in the intensive care unit.
“The doctors had done all they could and it was clear, they absolutely thought they were losing her at this point,” he tells PEOPLE.
Baby Rylan was doing fine, resting comfortably a few floors away in the same hospital. Until Ashley Manus, a nurse at Carolinas HealthCare System NorthEast, had an idea.
“We’re a big proponent of skin-to-skin [contact]. We believe it has great benefits for the mom and the baby, and we just thought it can’t hurt, might as well give it a try,” she says.
So Manus and an ICU nurse stripped Rylan down and gently put her on her comatose mother’s chest. “I was hoping somewhere deep down, Shelly was still there and could feel her baby, hear her baby and her mother’s instincts would come out and she would realize, ‘This is where I need to be.’ ” Manus says.
Doctors told Jeremy it was up to his wife to fight, and the nurses were convinced if Shelly heard Rylan cry, she’d come around.
But the baby was so at peace on her mom’s chest she didn’t let out a peep. Instead, she fell asleep.
“We tickled her, we even pinched her. It took 10 minutes and then she let out a wail,” Jeremy tells PEOPLE.
Incredibly, it worked.
“We could see a spike in her vitals on the monitor. We knew that somewhere in there she was hearing her baby. Rylan saved her mom’s life,” Manus says.
Jeremy chokes up remembering the moment. “It was the crying that got Shelly going again, got her fighting again. I got my wife back,” he says.
It would be another week before Shelly came out of the coma completely and could hold her baby for the first time. Both mom and baby were fine, with no complications from the ordeal.
Manus tells PEOPLE, “It’s a complete miracle. There no other words to describe it.”
It’s been a year since Shelly’s miraculous recovery, and this past weekend, the family celebrated Rylan’s first birthday with a big glitter-filled party for friends and family.
They even made a time capsule for the adorable little blonde girl to open when she turns 18. But there is one thing mom doesn’t plan to wait very long to tell her.
“I just look at her now and think of the amazing bond we have. I can tell her when she grows up that she saved my life,” she says.