Friends and strangers go to bat for family after mother dies of cancer

Milford residents came out in droves Saturday night to help support a local family who lost their mother to cancer.

Dan Lagasse, the father of four young children, stood pretty much in the center of it all in the Jonathan Law High School auditorium, talking to well wishers.

“This is huge,” Lagasse said. “I know quite a few of the people here, but not everyone.”

There were family, friends, members of the union he belongs to, school families and city and state officials.

Sometimes Lagasse held one of his younger children, but other times Aiden, 2, rested on someone else’s shoulders, and Zachary, 3, busied with other children.

For quite a while, baby Savannah, three months old, lay cradled in the arms of State Sen. Gayle Slossberg, and Katelyn, 10, stood front-row near the band, The Three of Us, looking out at the huge crowd that had come to help her family.

The family’s story has touched the hearts of many people in and outside of Milford. Michelle Lagasse, the mother of three young children and one on the way, died in August, not even a month after giving birth to Savannah. She had learned that she had breast cancer in March when she was pregnant. The cancer was a form that a family friend said was one of the most invasive and dangerous kinds — invasive mammary carcinoma, triple negative breast cancer.

As Michelle struggled for her life it became apparent to her doctors that at just 31 weeks they would have to take Savannah from her mother's womb. When the surgery was over, Savannah was taken to intensive care, and Michelle was taken to Hospice. She died about four  weeks later.

Dan is now raising the children on his own, with help from a nanny, Nichole Lyons, and his mother and friends. He’s hoping to return to work as a union electrician after the holidays, but has been out of work for several months as he works to get the family household in order and help his children through the grieving process.

A few weeks ago he said funds were getting rather tight. He hadn’t enough savings to carry things this long.

And so people came to his side. Some of the Milford folks who pulled together to help knew the family from school, or didn’t know them at all, just heard the saga.

Peggy Kelly, executive director of Milford’s Kids Count, said Nancy Nemec-Jolley, one of the key Lagasse family supporters, called her to get involved in helping the family. Kelly said an “amazing team” of people has been working on the family’s behalf.

Tammy Totten, who lives in Hebron, has known the Lagasse family about 10 years. She and her husband used to go out with Dan and Michelle on occasion before they had children.

She was heartened by the outpouring of support.

“This is amazing,” Totten said. “When I pulled up and saw all the cars, I was just so touched.”

Senator Slossberg met the family recently and quickly got attached.

“Dan, we love you,” she said through a microphone, addressing the crowd Saturday night. “No one deserves this support more than you do.”

Former Alderman Joseph Garbus was there with his wife, Carol. Joseph didn’t know the family before, but he has come to know them and thinks they are wonderful people. They actually live in the house he used to live in at Walnut Beach.

Bridget Lawless, a member of the committee helping the family, said the outpouring of support has been amazing.

“It’s unbelievable,” Lawless said. “This is the best of Milford.”

Everything for the Saturday night fundraiser was donated, from food from local restaurants to raffle and auction prizes, including big-ticket items like a large-screen television and use of a house in Vermont.

“People are so moved by his story and her story,” Lawless said about Dan and Michelle.

Before she died, Michelle had been posting pieces of her story online, explaining that she was pursuing holistic means to battle her cancer, in part because she was pregnant.

On a website called Giveforward, Michelle had posted the following:

“Because I am pregnant, I am seeking natural cures and insurance will not cover it. I am a firm believer in the power of holistic medicine, yoga and meditation. As much as I'd like to think that my green juice, sprouts and living foods will heal me alone, I know that I need additional treatments. Help me cure this so me and my baby don't have to endure traditional chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.”

Her last post, in June, thanked people for their support and well wishes.

“I thank life for new knowledge and I thank myself for being open to receive it,” she wrote. “I lay peacefully, completely grateful for having the opportunity of life for an extra day. To all of you, known and unknown, thank you! Thank you for your kind words, cards and words of encouragement. I release fear and inhale freedom, love and trust. Miracles can and do happen. And, it is in that miracle we find truth.”

The United Way has set up a fund to help the family, and people may still donate. For information call the United Way 203-874-6791, or call Nancy Nemec-Jolley at 203-283-9026 or email