Surrogate Mother Who Died Giving Birth to Another Couple's Baby Was 'the Rock' of Her Family

Ashley Boucher

Michelle Reaves, the California surrogate mother who died giving birth last week, died helping others achieve their dreams, and her brother-in-law tells PEOPLE that she was known in her life as the person others could turn to at times of need.

Jeff Romero, Michelle’s brother-in-law, tells PEOPLE of her strong will, honesty, and “very direct” personality, but also described the mother of two as “really compassionate.”

“She’s kind of like the matriarch of her whole friend group and certainly of her family, so she’s always kind of the person that people turn to,” Romero says of his brother Chris Reaves’ wife. “A lot of people turned to her, so she was kind of that to her friends and family — the rock that everyone would kind of lean on. She was an amazing mother and a real light in her family’s life.”

Romero tells PEOPLE that Michelle “always wanted to help people,” and that drive to care for others led to her decision to act as a surrogate.

“She wanted to do something that could be helpful to some people, she felt like this was a way that she could contribute,” he says of the 36-year-old, who was on her second surrogacy for the same family.

Michelle, already the mother of two young children — Gage, 7, and Monroe, 3 — was feeling “great” heading into labor, “other than being profoundly uncomfortable and pregnant,” Romero says.

Michelle Reaves | Facebook

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She had been prescribed bed rest after doctors labeled her a high-risk pregnancy, Romero tells PEOPLE.

“She started the pregnancy fine and there was no trouble or anything, and then a couple months in, she got labeled a high-risk pregnancy in which they said you need to be on bed rest and everything,” he says. “So there was some indication going into it that it might not be as seamless.”

Romero adds, “She felt great and everybody was kind of like ‘Okay, let’s do this,’ and then, you know, it didn’t go that way.”

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Once at the hospital, complications caused Michelle to lose a lot of blood, and doctors had to perform an emergency C-section to deliver the baby. Romero described a condition what is likely placental abruption, in which the placenta separates from the uterus and amniotic fluid enters the bloodstream.

Romero says that doctors revived her multiple times, and for a couple of hours it looked like she would make it — but tragically, she had lost too much blood to survive.

“She died a couple of times on the table, and they brought her back, and then for a couple of hours it was, ‘that was really a close one, she’s in for a long recovery,’ and we kind of thought that things were going to be okay,” Romero says. “And then she coded and they said she had just lost too much blood, they couldn’t bring her back.”

Michelle Reaves | Michelle Reaves/Facebook

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The family is taking Michelle’s death “hard,” Romero tells PEOPLE. The extended family had even been planning a trip to Hawaii — “she always wanted to go to Hawaii, she had never been” — to celebrate the end of her pregnancy and another family member’s recent wedding.

“It was really very sudden,” he says. “Not something that anybody was anticipating. So you know, the family is still in shock and not sure what to do next and kind of reeling from it.”

GoFundMe has been set up to help the family with funeral expenses and other needs. As of Tuesday afternoon, the campaign had raised more than $61,000 out of a $100,000 goal.