Milkbank first delivery

Milk bank makes first deliveries to premature babies

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (January 14, 2016) – Denise O’Connor wrapped a pink-and-purple bow around a bulky cooler and wheeled 25 containers of pasteurized and processed breast milk through the lobby of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC Wednesday afternoon — the culmination of two years of effort to get a milk bank up and running in Pittsburgh.

“It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for,” said Ms. O’Connor, board president of the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank, after the milk was taken upstairs to the neonatal intensive care unit and placed into a freezer, ready for babies so tiny they must take it by feeding tube because they aren’t capable of drinking from a bottle.

The Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank is the first milk bank in the region, and the first in Pennsylvania to serve multiple hospitals. Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC got its first milk delivery — about 250 ounces — to its NICU on Friday, and West Penn Hospital is expected to place its first order soon.

Although breast milk is considered beneficial for all babies, it is recommended as the “standard of care” for many babies in neonatal intensive care units, particularly for its effectiveness in preventing a dangerous stomach infection called necrotizing enterocolitis. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that one case of NEC requiring surgery or resulting in death could be prevented for every eight infants receiving breast milk instead of formula.

“It is literally a medication,” said Melissa Riley, associate clinical director of the Children’s NICU. “It’s a step to them getting out of here a little more quickly.”

About a year ago, Children’s Hospital started using donor milk, imported mainly from a milk bank in Boston, though it will now be using milk from Pittsburgh.

Kirsten Kerr, of Altoona, was able to use donor milk for her son, Bryson Wendle, a now 6-month-old patient at Children’s with a thick mess of dark hair. Bryson, born in July at just 26 weeks’ gestation, developed necrotizing enterocolitis when he was 10 days old and was transferred to Children’s from Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center.

Despite her pumping between eight and 10 times per day, including in the middle of the night, and trying prescription medication to increase milk production, Ms. Kerr’s milk supply dried up.

“With my situation it was so hard,” she said. “I felt bad that I couldn’t provide what he needed. I’m really appreciative that people are out there willing to help other moms.”

One of those people, Rachel Misour of Aspinwall, knows what it feels like to be the parent of a premature baby. Her son, Grayson, also was born in July — her water broke while she was visiting her parents in Minnesota two months before her September due date.

She was made aware of milk donation in the hospital there, and ended up shipping about 500 ounces of milk that she’d left in her parents’ freezer in Minneapolis to the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank. She has dropped off about 150 more ounces since returning to Pittsburgh.

“I was so thankful that I was able to produce for my son,” she said. “There are so many moms out there that struggle with breastfeeding. If I can help a little bit, I’m so glad there’s somewhere to be able to take the milk.”

Because premature babies eat such small amounts — sometimes only half a teaspoon per feeding — a few hundred ounces of milk can make a difference for a lot of babies.

Children’s Hospital has used between 300 and 1,600 ounces per month, Dr. Riley said. Because milk is expensive (about $4.25 per ounce) it is used only for certain babies, such as those under 3.3 pounds and those with certain gastrointestinal conditions.

The Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank currently has about 20 active donors and 200 people who have expressed interest. Donors must answer a telephone questionnaire, take a blood test and get their doctor and their baby’s pediatrician to sign off — a process that takes at least two to three weeks.

The milk bank requires that donors be able to give at least 150 ounces to cover processing costs, though that requirement is waived for bereaved mothers. The milk bank has received more than 10,000 ounces so far and is shooting for at least 130,000 per year, which it has identified as the number needed to break even on costs.

One of the most common motivations for donating, Ms. O’Connor said with a laugh, is freezer space.

“We had one woman who came down a couple of weeks ago because her husband had gotten a deer,” she said. “She had to empty out the freezer.”

Ms. O’Connor started planning for the milk bank about two years ago. Speed picked up about one year ago when organizers went to the foundation community asking for grants, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, UPMC and the Highmark Foundation.

By Anya Sostek:
Photo: Post-Gazette photographer Julie Rendleman

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