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Sharing breast milk with other moms can be a life saver

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For the first two weeks of Jayden Adams' life, the little boy, born 10 weeks premature at Advocate Lutheran General Children's Hospital, was nourished with donated human breast milk.

Now six weeks old and thriving, Jayden's mother, Mandy, who lost another premature son at birth a year ago, feels intensely grateful to the anonymous mothers who gave him their milk.

"I feel it helped save his life," said Adams, who lives in Harvard.

On Thursday, "Donor Milk: The Documentary," a film that explores the health benefits of donor milk for premature babies like Jayden through the stories of women who donate it, will be shown at the York Theatre in Elmhurst. The screening, the only one in the Chicago area, is being sponsored by Medela, the McHenry-based breast pump manufacturer. Money raised from the program will go to a local organization to build a milk bank in the Chicago area.

"Babies in neonatal intensive care units (NCIUS) are in dire need of milk as medicine," said Medela spokeswoman Rachel Mennell, whose own children were fed by donor milk after she underwent a bilateral mastectomy for breast cancer. "It's such a wonderful, wonderful gift."

For all newborns, breast milk helps protect them from infection, aids their cognitive development and seems to reduce the chances of obesity, diabetes and hypertension later in life. For the smallest, sickest and most fragile babies, though, it increases their very chances of survival.

"For really tiny babies, this is a truly a matter of life and death," said Summer Cassidy, a lactation educator who began the donor milk program at Advocate, which recently changed its name to Advocate Children's Hospital of Park Ridge.

Premature babies' stomachs and intestines are so fragile that formula, which is denser and heavier, can put them at risk for a potentially fatal condition called necrotizing enterocolitis (known as NEC), in which intestines become inflamed and can die off, Cassidy said.

In March, the American Academy of Pediatrics—citing studies that showed that premature babies fed solely with breast milk have 77 percent reduced rate of NEC—stated unequivocally that all preterm infants should receive human breast milk. If the mother is unable or unwilling to provide it, pasteurized donor milk should be given to the child instead of formula, it said.

At Advocate, the first hospital in the area to feed low birth weight babies and others at risk for the condition exclusively with breast milk, NEC is down by more than half, said Jeffrey George, hospital director of neonatology. Nurses are also reporting faster growth for the preemies, quicker transitions from incubator to open crib, and shorter hospital stays, he said.

Since the summer, Northwestern Memorial Hospital's NICU also has provided donor breast milk for preemies whose mothers can't or won't produce milk, according to Lindsey Fox, a hospital spokeswoman.

Despite the evidence, economics have largely driven the reluctance of many other hospitals to commit to donor milk, said Paula Meier, director of clinical research and lactation, neonatal intensive care unit, at Rush University Medical Center.

Meier also serves as president of the International Society for Research in Human Milk and Lactation. Hospitals often receive formula, usually based on cow's milk, free from the manufacturer — something in itself that is beginning to be seen as a conflict of interest, she said — while donor milk can cost $4.50 per ounce and is not covered by many insurance companies and public aid programs.

With the new recommendations, that is changing, she said.

"This is going to be the standard," she predicted.

And that new standard will put even more stress on the 11 donor milk banks in the U.S., which are unable to meet current needs, said Jean Drumlins, president of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.

"As more and more neonatal intensive care units offer donor breast milk to patients, a donor milk bank in the Chicago area would be a great benefit for the community and for the patients and families we serve," said George.

The Mothers' Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes is seeking to raise $850,000 to build a milk bank, probably in the northwestern suburbs, to sterilize, test and dispense donor milk to NICUs in Illinois and Wisconsin, said Jennifer Anderson, a Schaumburg-based lactation consultant who chairs the milk bank's board. Right now, the organization operates the only milk depot in Illinois in conjunction with Advocate Children's on the Park Ridge campus. The milk is sent to an Indiana milk bank to be pasteurized and dispensed.

An almost bigger task, though, will be to raise public awareness about donor milk, Anderson acknowledged. Most people, even many public health professionals, have never heard of donating milk, much less know how needed it is in the NICUs, she said.

"I can't tell you how many mothers have called me and told me that they threw away their milk, because they didn't know" they could donate it, said Cassidy, who also sits on the milk bank board. "Gallons and gallons are thrown away. It's so sad."

During its first three months of operation this year, the depot sent 6,267 ounces of donated breast milk to the Indiana bank.

About one-quarter to one-third of donations are from women who lost a baby, she said.

"After a loss, the moms cannot bear to throw away the milk," Cassidy said. "I can't tell you how meaningful this is to them to donate the milk to help another child."

Kevin Douglas West, one of the "Donor Milk" filmmakers, was inspired by his own heartbreaking experience of losing a child at 32 weeks.

"The mother's body does not know and continues to produce milk," he said, and his wife spent a year donating her breast milk in their daughter's name. "It was a tremendously emotional experience for my wife to donate her milk," West said. He said it was an important part of his grieving process, as well.

Every day, for seven months, Lisa Koenen, of Crystal Lake, produced breast milk in hopes of keeping alive her tremendously sick daughter, who was born 13 weeks premature.

When the infant ultimately died in Advocate's neonatal unit in March 2010, Koenen was left with more than 1,200 ounces of frozen breast milk, which she donated in the name of her daughter. It was an act of tremendous meaning for her, she said.

"It allowed Melinda to live on and give other babies a chance for life, which my daughter was not able to have," said Koenen.

[infobox]"Donor Milk: The Documentary" will be shown at 7 p.m. Thursday at the York Theatre, 150 N. York St., Elmhurst, followed by a discussion and reception with filmmaker Jarred King; Jennifer Anderson and Summer Cassidy of the Mothers' Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes; neonatologists; and Mandy Adams.

Attendees are asked for a donation of $25, which Medela will match.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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