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.
But the baby was so at peace on her mom's chest she didn't let out a peep. Instead, she fell asleep.
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.
Carolinas HealthCare System NorthEast
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.
"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.