Premature babies aren't the only humans who stand to gain from breast milk. Children with severe allergies, people recovering from organ transplants, and patients with autoimmune diseases sometimes drink donor milk because its proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are easily tolerated and its immunological properties help protect against infection.
Research suggests that breast milk may even have the potential to kill cancer cells. Several studies in Europe and Asia have investigated a complex called HAMLET—an acronym for human alpha-lactalbumin made lethal to tumor cells—that's found in human milk. In the mid-1990s, Swedish researchers discovered that purified HAMLET, when mixed with cultures that contained either healthy or cancerous cells, destroyed the tumor cells but left the healthy cells unharmed. A preliminary human study—involving fewer than a dozen bladder cancer patients who were injected with HAMLET—showed promising results, though there's no evidence to suggest that simply drinking breast milk can kill tumor cells. Nevertheless, some adults with cancer have used it as part of their disease-fighting regimen.
Although milk banks would love to provide milk to every person that would benefit, donors are ultimately the ones controlling the supply. One month, stores may be up on the West Coast and lagging far behind on the East Coast; the next month, the opposite may be true. The banks serve as backup for one another. When one is low, a group e-mail will go out: "Got milk?" Milk bank administrators are routinely forced to triage, which they do following HMBANA guidelines.
Desperately sick premature infants, it is agreed, need donor milk more than healthy full-term babies. Babies, in general, stand to benefit more than toddlers. But as is the case with most any set of guidelines, there is room for interpretation. In California, Wesley Forslund-Mooers was suddenly left without a source of breast milk after a stroke killed his mother when he was only 3 days old. He was a perfectly healthy baby—you could argue that he didn't need the milk—but no one at the donor bank in San Jose was going to refuse him.
The day after Reese died, Lynn called WakeMed Mothers' Milk Bank.
"We lost our daughter," she told Sue Evans, the lactation consultant who answered the phone. "We've got a lot of milk."
"We'd love to have it," Sue said. "We'll send you coolers so you can ship it."
Ship it? How could they ship it? The milk was part of their connection to Reese. And there was so much of it. All those days and nights of pumping. It had to get there safely. It had to stay frozen. They couldn't ship it. They would have to deliver it themselves.
It was pouring rain the morning that Lynn loaded milk into coolers. Chris wheeled the freezers out of the garage and up the ramp of a rented trailer they'd hitched to the back of their Ford Escape. It was hard work. The freezers were packed full; for weeks he'd been using phone books to weight down the chest freezer's lid. As he hooked up a generator to keep the milk frozen, he couldn't tell the difference between the rain and his sweat.
They swung by their friend Matt's house to empty his freezer. Then to the hospital, where the neonatal nurses had been storing the last of the milk. Finally, with the freezers and two coolers lashed tight, they headed south to Raleigh. Two hundred miles to think about Reese.
We Hear You!