Lakita Wickware was having an uncomfortable pregnancy, but with four months to go, matters were about to get worse. “The doctor said, ‘You have pre-eclampsia and that baby has to come out,’” recalls the 38-year-old cleaning firm owner from Elmwood, a suburb of New Orleans. There followed two weeks of medical interventions with the baby in utero, buying time while his lungs developed. As Wickware’s blood pressure problems worsened, her little boy was delivered by cesarean section. “He was so small,” Wickware says. “I could hold his whole body in one hand. Because of all the tubes, I couldn’t see his face; that was scary for me.”
It’s a helpless feeling, Wickware says; one of the only things she could do was try to feed her baby. Mother’s milk is precious to all newborns, but for preemies, it can be lifesaving. A 1-pound baby is too small to nurse, so preemie moms use mechanical pumps to collect their milk. Unfortunately for Wickware, it didn’t work. “I tried and tried, but the milk never came,” she says.
That’s when the doctors at Ochsner turned to a vital source of valuable nutrition—human milk donated by mothers whose supply exceeds the needs of their own babies. Ochsner is now developing Louisiana’s first human milk bank at Ochsner Baptist in New Orleans. There are just 24 active milk banks recognized by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. When completed, the facility at Ochsner Baptist will screen milk from approved donors, then proceed with pasteurization, packaging and distribution to neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) throughout Louisiana and the surrounding region. Currently, Ochsner Baptist is classified as a Human Milk Depot, partnering with the Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin, Texas. Ochsner collects the milk and sends it to Austin, where it is processed and made ready for distribution. Ochsner Baptist NICU then purchases this milk for its babies. Because Ochsner is a depot, a call from it to purchase the milk is prioritized. However, there are occasions when a request cannot be fulfilled due to inadequate supply and high demands.
“To have our own milk bank would give Louisiana’s NICUs priority,” says Laura Carleton, project coordinator for the development of the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Louisiana at Ochsner Baptist. “There’s never enough milk to satisfy all the demand, so we can make sure we take care of the need of our state.” Part of the development effort is to establish collection sites across Louisiana. At Ochsner Baptist, the current donation process could not be easier. Once approved, a mother can drive to the valet on the second floor of the one of the hospital’s parking garages and drop off her milk donation without ever leaving her car.
“In the spirit of milk being donated by mothers in the Louisiana community, we’re trying to grow this milk bank from financial donations and community support,” says Harley Ginsberg, MD, Section Head of Neonatology and Medical Director of the NICU at Ochsner Baptist. Dr. Ginsberg, the driving force behind developing the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Louisiana at Ochsner Baptist, spearheaded the campaign by being the initial donor; he and his wife, Susan, donated $5,000, and then contributed a $10,000 matching grant. “We realized that if we were not willing to take the lead, then we had no right asking others to put a penny toward the project,” Dr. Ginsberg says. “And the Ochsner community, from the doctors and nurses to our education department, has been tremendously supportive of this initiative.”
A location for the milk bank has been chosen at Ochsner Baptist, and with fundraising already underway— Dr. Ginsberg says the goal is to raise between $750,000 and $1 million—the milk bank could be operational by the end of 2017.
“This is not just a ‘feel-good’ project,” Dr. Ginsberg adds. “Study after study shows that a mother’s milk is vastly superior to any commercially prepared formula, especially with regard to nutritional and immunogenic support.” Mother’s milk offers the best available protection against necrotizing enterocolitis, an often-fatal affliction of the intestines in preemies. Studies show that preemies fed mother’s milk have one-sixth the incidence of this disease.
The donor milk program aims to help mothers feed their premature infants until they begin producing milk. For most mothers, milk production begins within a week; for others, like Wickware, the best of efforts yield no results.
“I’m so grateful for the help,” says Wickware. “I know how hard it is to pump, and that’s a real sacrifice by another mom out there.” After his rough start in life, baby Ray has grown into a bright-eyed toddler, steadily attaining his developmental milestones. “I remember when they said he might have serious problems or not even live,” says Wickware. “It was a blessing for someone to donate that milk so he could have the best possible chance.”
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