Mothers give the (breast) milk of human kindness

Brent Robinson drove from his home in Durham to a hospital last week toting liquid gold, or at least its biological equivalent: his wife's breast milk.

It was only 18 ounces, but the Mothers' Milk Bank at WakeMed hospital gratefully received it.

With summer here and vacations planned, the number of mothers donating milk to the bank, which serves Charlotte and much of the East Coast, has plummeted even as the demand for human milk is rising.

Last week, the milk bank's storage freezers stood empty, save for about 5,000 ounces earmarked for hospitalized premature babies, the top priority.

A shortage of human milk means sick babies and toddlers who have been discharged as well as adopted babies and babies of mothers who can't breastfeed are out of luck. Some cancer patients receive the milk, too.

To keep up with demand, Bonnie Moore, the milk bank's supervisor, pulled out her donor list last week and called 25 women who live nearby to ask if they had any extra milk. Of the roughly150 women who pump for the milk bank at any one time, about a third live in or near the Triangle.

Within two days, they had dropped off more than 2,000 ounces.

“We're no longer desperate, but we're not in good shape either,” said Moore. “We like our freezers full.”

As the value of human milk becomes more widely known, the milk bank is fielding more requests.

In November 2006, the milk bank dispensed 5,300 ounces; last November, it supplied more than three times that.

All of the Triangle's major hospitals, including those at Duke and UNC Chapel Hill, use human milk from WakeMed Health & Hospitals' bank in their critical care nurseries. The milk bank also sends milk to hospitals along the East Coast that request it.

Home with his 1-year-old daughter, Brent Robinson answered the phone when Moore rang. His wife had 18 ounces available so he buckled baby Sonia into her car seat and drove the milk to Raleigh.

His wife, Angela Robinson, occasionally worked at WakeMed's neonatal intensive care unit while she was doing a pediatric residency at UNC. She saw babies getting donated milk. After Sonia was born, she began pumping for her and the milk bank. She has contributed more than 1,300 ounces.

“You know, I was taking care of these babies, and if I can do this and am fortunate enough to pump extra, it's really special,” she said.

The milk bank charges $4.50 an ounce for its milk, which is often not covered by insurance.

It's expensive to run the nonprofit bank. Donors, who are not paid for their milk, undergo pricey blood tests underwritten by WakeMed to check for HIV and other diseases. The pasteurization process is time-consuming. And managing the supply and demand, the incoming and outgoing shipments of breast milk, requires time and money. Once these hurdles are cleared, the milk bank functions much like a blood bank with one key difference: there isn't a milk “type,” so babies can readily consume another mother's milk.

The WakeMed Mothers' Milk Bank is one of nine public milk banks in the United States. California supports a private milk bank.

Participating mothers pump breast milk and freeze it in special plastic bags. The milk bank requires mothers to collect at least 200 ounces in order to donate.

Once the milk reaches WakeMed, it's pooled with the milk of three or four other women, cultured for bacteria and pasteurized.

Premature babies receive most of the milk, which is more easily digestible than formula. Mothers of premature babies often find their bodies don't start producing milk as fast as their babies need it. Sometimes, the mothers are sick and too weak to pump their own breast milk.

Premature babies often take in only two to three ounces in 24 hours, but that adds up. UNC alone uses nearly 1,000 ounces of human milk from the milk bank each month.

“The fats and proteins and carbohydrates are exactly the right balance for human growth and development,” said Mary Rose Tully, director of lactation services at UNC Chapel Hill.