One Woman's Mission to Save Babies
Every ounce of milk Lynn pumped was another ounce she and Chris had to safely store. After they filled their kitchen freezer, they invested in a chest freezer. After that was full, they commandeered the freezer of Chris's old friend Matt, who'd been best man at their wedding. After that was full, they went on Craigslist and found an upright freezer, its sides dented and its beige paint chipped but its motor intact. When the woman selling it heard what it was to be used for, she dropped the price from $25 to $20. Sold.
Meanwhile, Reese seemed to be doing better. At the end of June, her breathing tube was removed, and suddenly Lynn was able to hold her every day. Reese smiled. And cried. Without the breathing tube blocking the sound, Lynn and Chris finally got to hear her cry. But two weeks after the tube came out, it had to go back in as Reese began getting weaker.
Still, the milk kept coming. Though Lynn poured some into ice cube trays, most went into two-ounce containers she and Chris had once used to serve Jell-O shots at a party. They'd bought the containers at Costco, where the smallest quantity available was 2,000. They figured they'd never use them all. Now they were running out.
On weekdays, two nurses and a technician work in the WakeMed Mothers' Milk Bank in Raleigh, North Carolina. Crammed into 650 square feet of space, the bank is attached to the department of neonatology on the third floor of a nondescript seven-story brick and glass structure, the main building on the WakeMed hospital system's main campus. With two rooms the size of walk-in closets (one a tiny lab where milk is pasteurized; the other, a storage area where it's kept frozen), and a slightly larger administrative space that was carved out of physician sleeping quarters, the bank manages to serve the entire East Coast, from Maine to Florida and west to Tennessee.
When frozen donor milk arrives via an overnight FedEx flight, it's quickly unpacked and sorted according to the month it was pumped (frozen breast milk is good for up to a year), then returned to a freezer to await processing. When a technician is ready to pasteurize a batch, she selects milk from three to five mothers (the milk is mixed to balance its nutritional profile). In the lab, the milk is thawed, mingled in a flask, and cultured for bacteria. It's poured into glass bottles (two-ounce containers for new preemies, eight-ounce for older babies), then pasteurized in a water bath for 30 minutes at about 145 degrees Fahrenheit, a process that kills any bad things that may be lurking in the milk while retaining most of the good ones. Next, the bottles are plunged into an ice bath, another culture is taken, and the bottles are sealed and placed in a holding freezer until the cultures have returned from the hospital lab. If the milk is "clean," it's moved into the dispensing freezer, where it might sit for a day to a week, depending on demand.
Each bottle of milk is labeled with a batch number. Each batch is keyed to a record of which donors contributed. (For legal purposes, records are kept for 21 years, though there has never been a lawsuit involving donor breast milk.)
Although the banks are not-for-profit, they charge recipients up to $4.50 an ounce, to cover costs. Those costs begin with donor screening; at WakeMed, potential donors are first interviewed by phone, then asked to complete a 49-part questionnaire. Question 5: In the past five years, have you ever used recreational drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, LSD, ecstasy, or amphetamines? Question 7: Please describe your daily intake of caffeine. Question 21: Have you had an accidental needle stick or exposure to someone's blood? The banks also cover the cost of donor blood tests, the cost of processing and storing the milk, and the cost of shipping it (which involves dry ice, Styrofoam, and cardboard boxes or coolers labeled HUMAN DONOR MILK).