First-time mom Antonia Gonzalez had committed to giving breastfeeding a try, but her body simply wasn’t ready when her triplets were born nearly 8 weeks premature.
Fortunately for the Gonzalez family, Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth is one of 75 hospitals served by the nonprofit Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas. The triplets — Logan, Sofia and Alexandria, who were born Aug. 25 ranging from 2 pounds 11 ounces to 3 pounds 4 ounces — have thrived on donated breast milk for the first week of their life at Cook Children’s neonatal intensive-care unit.
“The bank is a great resource, a godsend, for people like us who need help in the beginning,” said new father Cuahutemoc Gonzalez of Fort Worth as he tended his tiny son, Logan. “It was a great relief to know when my children were born that there was food ready, that it was healthy and it was safe for them.”
The Mothers’ Milk Bank of North Texas is one of just 11 nonprofit milk banks in the country. It opened in Fort Worth in 2004 to provide premature and critically ill infants with donated human breast milk when their own mother’s milk is not available. A majority of the milk goes to hospitalized babies born below 3 pounds, and the rest goes to critically ill newborns at home, Executive Director Amy Vickers said.
“It increases their chance for survival,” Vickers said. “It gives them a stronger hold on life. There is no substitute for human milk for these tiny, pre-term babies.”
The bank, which could provide only a few hundred ounces each month of pasteurized donor milk when it began nine years ago, now supplies about 40,000 ounces of milk each month to hospitals in 10 states. But the demand for milk continues to grow, Vickers said, and the agency is always seeking more donor moms to participate.
“The need for donor milk has exponentially grown,” said Vickers, adding that the agency is also raising funds to buy a new walk-in freezer to store its supply. “Since we opened, it’s been a daily struggle to keep up.”
Donated milk is accepted from screened, healthy breastfeeding moms whose children are under 1 year old. Currently, about 600 moms donate frozen bags of milk to the bank. The process to ready those donations for the hospital, which includes pasteurization and blending milk from different moms to get the optimal nutritional mix, takes about 48 hours to complete.
“It’s like a blood bank. We can trace it from the donor to the recipient,” Vickers said. “It’s a very expensive process to ensure it’s safe and to screen the donors.”
Nearly half of NICUs served are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Within the last four years, Cook Children’s neonatologists decided that infants born weighing less than 1,500 grams would receive donor breast milk with their parents’ approval, said Hayley Spinks, a clinical dietician at the Fort Worth medical center. More than 100 research articles document the benefit of breast milk for premature babies.
“Instead of talking about the culture of breast milk, we talk about how breast milk is medicine, not just food, for premature infants,” Spinks said.
Breast milk is better tolerated than formula and can decrease the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis, an intestinal disease that can cause illness or death in premature infants, she said. The average cost to treat necrotizing enterocolitis, known as NEC, is $73,000 per infant.
“That makes milk a very cost-effective resource,” Spinks said.
Angela Mendoza of Fort Worth was the first mother to support the milk bank. Mendoza said donating her breast milk helped her as she was grieving the loss of her daughter Carmen, who died after three weeks in the NICU after being born prematurely at 27 weeks.
“When Carmen passed away, I had all this milk. I didn’t want to throw it away,” said Mendoza, who said a nurse had suggested donating to help other families. “It helped to know that we were doing something positive.”
‘Share our blessings’
To honor the nearly 160 mothers, including Mendoza, who have donated breast milk after the loss of their own infants, the Mothers’ Milk Bank installed a memorial tree, named Carmen’s Tree, in its lobby. Each leaf is dedicated to the donor’s baby.
“We should all as people share our blessings,” Mendoza said.
Antonia Gonzalez said she is now pumping her own milk and sending it to the milk bank to help supplement her triplets’ feedings.
“That was always going to be a challenge — whether I was going to be able to produce enough milk for all of them at once,” Gonzalez said. “The donor milk was the next best thing.”
Mothers are asked to commit to donating at least 100 ounces of milk to the bank. That was no problem for Granbury resident Alicia Richman, who now holds a Guinness World Record for donating 11,115 ounces, the equivalent of 86.8 gallons, of breast milk to the milk bank between June 2011 and March 2012.
“Our moms are the heroes of the milk bank,” Vickers said. “They are driven by the need to help these babies survive. We are so grateful.”