By Kaitlin Candelaria
Homewood resident Mary Michael Kelley never knew about the need for a milk bank in Alabama until her own personal tragedy brought the issue to the forefront.
After losing one child shortly after birth and almost losing another, Kelley was more than aware not only that there were infants who needed milk, but also that there were mothers who needed or wanted to donate it.
Kelley, executive director of the Community Food Bank in Homewood, set out to establish the state’s first milk bank to collect, pasteurize and distribute breast milk.
Mother’s Milk will be distributing its first batch of milk to hospitals in the Birmingham area at the end of this month, and it already has established two other outlets in the state.
“Critically ill infants have much better health outcomes when they receive breast milk,” said Katherine Wood, program coordinator for Mother’s Milk. “I’m a nurse and I have a master’s in public health as well, so this is a nice intersection of nursing and looking at how do you affect the health of a population.”
Just a few years ago, Kelley had no idea that donated breast milk was even an issue.
After a normal and healthy pregnancy, she gave birth to her first son in 2009. Soon after his birth, she and her husband were surprised but excited to find out they were expecting again – this time, a little girl. They named her Kathryn and began waiting patiently to take home their bundle of joy.
Unfortunately, Kathryn never made it home. At about 27 weeks, Kelley started noticing she was much larger than normal. Although doctors originally brushed it off, by the time she went in for her 32-week appointment, they immediately called for an ultrasound due to her alarming size.
“They discovered Kathryn had non-immune fetal hydrops,” Kelley said. “It’s a complication of pregnancy that basically indicates that the baby is in heart failure and can’t manage his or her fluid.”
The cause of the baby’s condition was unknown, but Kelley and her husband were told to prepare for the worst. At 36 weeks, Kelley was the size of someone carrying quadruplets, and doctors decided to deliver. Doctors at UAB Hospital worked vigilantly and Kathryn fought hard, but the Kelley’s lost their baby girl 12 days after she was born.
“At that point, I had pumped my breast milk religiously every two to four hours when she was in the NICU,” Kelley said. “After Kathryn passed away, the bereavement nurse called me and asked what I wanted to do with it. She said that normally she would have told me to donate it to a nonprofit milk bank, but, unfortunately, we didn’t have one of those here.”
Although Kelley said she could have opted to mail the milk to an out-of-state milk bank, the process is difficult and complicated.
“When you’re burying your child and going through all that entails and going through each day as numb as you can, it’s not on the forefront of your mind to go through this entire in-depth process,” Kelley said. “I finally told them to throw it away and that was hard. It wasn’t hard because of how hard I had worked for it, but because of what it represented. It was a piece of her.”
Revisiting the NICU
About a year later, Kelley and her husband decided to try again for another baby. But halfway through the pregnancy, the baby began showing the exact same symptoms.
“It was like reliving your worst nightmare,” Kelley said. Her son also was diagnosed with non-immune fetal hydrops. Kelley and her baby boy, Micah, underwent risky procedures to alleviate the fluid on his lungs while in utero before a placental abruption caused an emergency C-section. Micah was born on the night of Thanksgiving in 2012 at only 27 weeks.
“He didn’t let out a single cry,” Kelley said. “They told us to prepare for him not to survive the day. But he did. We had a number of close, close calls, but Micah was extremely stubborn.”
During Micah’s eight-month stay in the NICU, the need for a local milk bank once again made itself evident in Kelley’s life.
“I started having more of this conversation with doctors and nurses about the need for a donor breast milk bank in the area,” Kelley said. “It was overwhelming to me that everyone was in agreement that we needed one, but we didn’t have one.”
Mother’s Milk is Born
At that time, Kelley was the emerging executive director of the Community Food Bank in Homewood. She approached the board with her vision of creating a milk bank within the food bank.
“When it gets down to it, a food bank specializes in soliciting, receiving and distributing a product, which is exactly what a milk bank does,” Kelley said. “I was lucky enough to have a board that supported the relationship between the two.”
The Community Food Bank then began pursuing community partners. Opening a milk bank can be a costly operation and involves proper equipment and space.
“We started having conversations with the Birmingham Community Foundation and the Junior League and after that, everything just clicked,” Kelley said. Mother’s Milk was officially born.
While raising funding this past year, Mother’s Milk began collecting donor breast milk for another milk bank.
When mothers donate milk, it’s stored in a freezer before being pasteurized in-house, which ensures all bacteria and viruses in the milk are eliminated, and then stored for distribution.
“It’s been overwhelming,” Wood said. “In our first year, we’ve collected over 25,000 ounces of milk. Since we’ve started screening, we’ve had over 30 moms sign up to donate and drop off milk. Since we’ve started the process of building a milk bank, every Level 3 NICU in Birmingham has started to use donor milk or has a plan in place for when they want to use it.”
This past summer, Mother’s Milk began collecting milk to pasteurize and distribute locally. It will begin sending out the first batches to hospitals around the city at the end of this month.
Wood said that, although there is always an inherent risk of accepting milk from someone else, the mothers who donate to Mother’s Milk are triple screened.
“They have to go through an oral screening, they have to fill out a packet and go through a verbal interview and have to have forms filled out by their OB and their pediatrician,” Wood said.
She also said that long term, they would love to see depots all across the state. They’ve already managed to set up posts in Auburn/Opelika as well as Madison.
The Auburn/Opelika depot inspired Auburn resident Sarah Hillyer to begin donating.
“With my first baby, we had a hard time starting off breast feeding, so I ended up having an oversupply with her,” Hillyer said. “This is my second baby. I found out about (Mother’s Milk) through a really great support group through the East Alabama Medical Center and I started pumping an extra time a day.”
Hillyer said she enjoys donating not only because it uses up her extra milk, but because it helps those in need.
“I feel so blessed that I’ve never had a baby in the NICU, but I’ve had friends who have,” Hillyer said. “Being a mom is hard and we have to take care of each other.”
That care is another crucial part of the process for Kelley.
“An important piece of this is having an outlet for bereaved mothers like myself to be able to donate to,” Kelley said. “Since collecting, we’ve had a number of them reach out to us who have decided to donate their breast milk and many of whom have decided to pump their breast milk after the death of their child as a way to grieve.”
Kelley said she also hopes that having a local milk bank will encourage breast feeding among low-income and minority women in the area. She said that, although the bank is in its infancy, she’s already starting to see the effects in the community. She relayed speaking with a representative at the local AT&T store last week.
“He yawned and apologized and said he had a newborn at home,” Kelley said. “He said at first it was really stressful because (his wife’s) milk wasn’t coming in but it was great because the hospital was able to let them use donor milk. Then, he asked if I had heard of the new milk bank in town and I was giddy.”
Although officially having the milk bank up and running will be a huge accomplishment for Kelley, she has an even bigger one to celebrate next month. Micah, who she once was told wouldn’t make it through the night, will be turning three years old.
“It’s been challenging,” Kelley said. “But I think it’s been the most rewarding thing that I could have done to channel the most difficult thing in my life. It will make a difference in this community and for moms and babies all over the place.”