GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - It was late October 2011 when a pregnant woman's contractions suddenly became stronger. She was driving her car through Denver, alone on her way home to Arizona from Nebraska when she saw the sign for Parker Adventist Hospital.
She followed the signs to the hospital where she decided she'd give birth, and then leave, without the baby.
The Colorado Safe Haven for Newborns law allows a birth parent, without fear of prosecution, to relinquish a baby, unharmed, at a hospital or fire station within 72 hours of birth.
It was a fortunate twist of fate for a Grand Junction couple, eager to adopt a baby, that the woman followed the signs to Parker Adventist Hospital. If she'd given birth at any other hospital in the nation, the baby may have ended up in foster care instead of meeting her "forever parents" the day she was born.
"We're the only hospital in the nation that has an established adoption support program," the hospital's adoption liaison Rebecca Vahle said. "It's been acknowledged as best practice in adoption support for families, and now other hospitals are starting to follow our lead."
Sam and Adrea Tilford, of Grand Junction, had dreamed for years of becoming parents. Unable to become pregnant however, they began the lengthy process of adoption by contacting the Colorado-based agency, Hope's Promise, one of several adoption agencies with whom Adventist Hospital works.
The Tilfords spent their fifth wedding anniversary, in June 2011, filling out the initial application. A series of questionnaires, plus several in-depth interviews followed, conducted both individually and together.
The agency looked at their finances and inspected their home. Sam and Adrea were asked about their own upbringings, their parenting philosophies and their marriage.
"You have to lay out your life for others to decide if you're qualified to be parents or not," Adrea said.
The Tilfords were approved in September of that year. They joined a waiting pool of other families waiting to adopt a baby. The average wait time is one to two years, said Beth Woods, director of adoptions in the agency's Grand Junction office.
The pregnant woman who walked into Parker Adventist Hospital, Oct. 27, at 3 a.m., told the nurse she wasn't planning to parent the child. When told she could choose the family from among several couples who had been approved, the woman studied the family profiles.
"She chose us," Adrea said, and "our life forever changed. She asked us to be parents of our sweet girl.
"It's the most amazing and humbling feeling to be told 'you should be the one to raise this child.'"
The hospital called the Tilfords as soon as the decision was made, and Sam, a superintendent with Asset Engineering, and Adrea, an English teacher at Grand Junction High School, hopped in their car and sped to the Front Range.
Nella was born October 27, 2011 at 6 a.m. She met Sam and Adrea, her "forever family" at 10:30 p.m. that night. The biological mother, who had left the hospital, returned to meet the Tilfords where they spent the next two hours talking.
"I am so glad we met her (the biological mother)," Adrea said. "We learned about who she is, things she loved, the journey she was on. It will be really important to Nella later in her life.
"She had several circumstances that led her to this decision. A woman won't make an adoption plan if she's in a situation that is easy. She looked at us and said 'this all finally makes sense to me.'"
Adrea said she grieved for those hours she wasn't with Nella, between birth and the moment she first held her child. She said it comforted her to know that the nursing staff loved and held the baby throughout the day.
The medical staff of around 15 gathered around the nursing station, crying, excited and happy to witness Sam and Adrea meet Nella for the first time, she said.
A year later, the smiley, tow-headed toddler says "daddy," "mama," "hi, doggy," and a few other words.
The other day when dad got home from work, she excitedly reached for him.
Before, "I couldn't imagine my life with a kid, and now I can't imagine my life without her," Sam said.