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In This Medical Bank, The Currency Is Breast Milk

Lauren Silverman

At the Mothers Milk Bank of North Texas, the morning milk delivery still exists. Except here, the milk comes from moms across the country.

The Mother’s Milk Bank in Fort Worth is something between a blood bank and a dairy processing plant. When it opened almost a decade ago, the bank provided just a few hundred ounces of milk to fragile babies each month. Now, it sends out 40,000 ounces of milk each month. And demand is growing. 

Executive Director Amy Vickers, a former nurse, says the need for human donor milk has skyrocketed in the past decade.

“Our first year we dispensed 5,000 ounces,” she says, “We now dispense over 400,000 ounces a year.”

That’s more than three thousand gallons. A premature baby might drink just a few ounces a day. So why is demand up? Vickers says it’s because of mounting evidence regarding the benefits of human milk — especially for pre-term infants.

“It gives them a better chance to survive and to survive free of complications,” Vickers says.

Milk As Medicine

The World Health OrganizationAmerican Academy of Pediatrics andSurgeonGeneral encourage using pasteurized human donor milk for preterm infants when a mother’s own milk is unavailable.

That was the situation for Melissa Collett – who found out about donor milk when she was in emergency delivery for her twins.

“My goal had been to breast feed from the get go,” Collett says, “But when I couldn’t I didn’t even think about formula.”

Credit Courtesy of Collett Family

Collett’s babies, Harper and Jack, were born seven weeks early, and rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Cook Children’s Medical Center.

“While they were there they needed all the nutrients they could get,” Collett says. “So we would go in, and they were still being fed through a tube and we would get to hold them and we’d watch the milk drip in through the tube and it would take an hour for just a few milliliters. It was very tedious, but they grew!”

The donor milk that helped Harper and Jack grow went through a meticulous screening and cleaning process at the Fort Worth Milk Bank.

The Mixing Process

After donors – who are screened and blood tested – drop off their frozen milk, it ends up in a lab where workers in gloves, aprons, hair nets and mouth covers thaw out the donations.

The thawed milk is pasteurized, and a sample is put into a device that filters the milk and performs a spectroscopic analysis to find out the nutritional information for each mom’s milk.

This helps determine how much milk from each donation needs to be mixed together to create the optimal calorie and protein content.

“We target 20 calories per ounce, 22 or 24 so that the hospitals have a choice for what they need for specific babies,” Vickers explains.

The precious liquid is treated like medicine, not a beverage.

Doling Out Doses

About a quarter of milk from the Milk Bank is fed to babies at home that are particularly medically fragile, Vickers says. The majority goes directly to hospitals to nourish hospitalized infants.

In the past five years, the use of donor milk in neonatal intensive care units across the country has grown rapidly, according to the Journal of Human Lactation. The North Texas Milk bank is helping communitiesin Birmingham, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi start pasteurization labs to open milk banks within a year.

That doesn’t mean there’s a surplus.

“There is always a need for more donors,” Vickers says. “Because unlike blood banking where you get a donor and can call them every 50, 60 days and ask them to donate, our donors don’t lactate forever.”

Currently, about 600 moms donate milk to the bank. Some donate in memory of babies they’ve lost, others because they don’t want to watch medicine go down the drain. Any amount, Vickers says, can help nurse a sick baby back to health.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.