For a brief moment, Donna Ellis, RN, MSN, CLC, IBCLC thought, “Oh dear, what have I gotten myself into?”
In the fall of 2018, Ellis attended a La Leche League conference where she met a doula and yoga instructor with a toddler attached in a sling. Ellis recently moved to Maine after many years working and living in Germany, and she was taking every opportunity to increase awareness of banked donor milk in her new community.
Ellis eventually began attending the instructor’s adaptive yoga practice.
“As I began taking classes, this instructor and I realized how much we enjoyed one another and shared similar interests,” Ellis begins. “I provided breastfeeding information to one of her prenatal yoga classes and attended the LLL group that met at the studio.”
Later in the fall, Ellis attended a Maine State Breastfeeding Coalition presentation by Cynthia Cohen from the Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast who’d reported on the role and the need for milk depots. At that time Maine had only two depots, both a distance from the Southern Maine communities where Ellis lived.
Ellis became excited about the prospect of setting up a milk depot in her community, the yoga studio seemed a good community location. The instructor was delighted and also thought it was a good fit.
The process began. Ellis registered as a volunteer with the milk bank and gained basic education on the process for receiving and shipping frozen donor milk.
Setting up the milk depot would require a deep freezer, a roughly one to two thousand dollar piece of equipment, which is either purchased or donated by the community. This seemed to be the major hurdle. Ellis started to wonder what she’d gotten herself into. After only a few emails to local appliance businesses though, a local business man quickly volunteered to anonymously donate a new freezer.
Ellis says she was surprised and pleased!
The milk bank then provided online HIPAA training for Ellis and the yoga instructor. They also provided a temperature monitoring device for the freezer which sets off an alarm if the temperature becomes too high.
The milk depot officially opened on May 30, 2019 with press coverage, a ceremonial ribbon cutting and cake. The event was attended by several representatives of the Mother’s Milk Bank Northeast and Maine families who had donated their milk.
Ellis explains that the original space was tucked into an old mill that at one time produced fabric. It had old wood floors and wide open space. Just inside the entrance was a lounge area with comfortable chairs and a small kitchen and toys for children to play. Partly because parking was a challenge though, the studio/depot recently moved to a new location just down the street with plenty of parking, ramps that accommodate strollers and a quiet environment.
So far, Ellis reports that only two mothers have donated to the milk depot, as a result of frequent travel, the unexpected move of the yoga studio and many individuals choose to donate directly to the milk bank with the convenience of FedEx’s milk shipping services.
“The donation of human milk is an amazing gift making a major difference in the lives of families reaching beyond today into the future,” Ellis says. “Those who provide their milk are quiet heroes.”
She points out some important things about donor human milk:
- Donor milk contains bioactive components, hormones, and enzymes that optimize infant growth and development.
- It is species specific working best with the newborn’s immature gut, liver, kidneys and immune system.
- It is just the right mix of nutrients – not only for the newborn and preterm infant, but to nourish the microbes composing the gut microbiome.
- It has immune properties – Secretory IgA. Infants don’t have any Secretory IgA so the first bits of colostrum from the mother or expressed milk provide a protective coating, keeping nasty bacteria from causing infections like NEC – a severe bowel condition that targets preterm infants and other serious illnesses and infections.
Once milk is collected and sent to the milk bank, safety is guaranteed through the history and serology of donors, bacteriology of the milk and subsequent heat treatment destroying HIV, Herpes, CMV and other viruses. Still, Ellis reports, around 90 percent of the beneficial components remain. And while the cost of donor human milk might look expensive at first glance, coming in around four to six dollars per ounce, when we consider it’s a medication, it’s truly cost effective.
There was a recent public hearing in Maine regarding access to donor milk. A Maine State Breastfeeding Coalition member who works with the Maine State Legislature attended and indicated that LD 1938 (donor breast milk reimbursement in MaineCare) passed unanimously through the HHS Committee. Amendments were made, so the HHS Committee will have another opportunity to review the language. Once that is accomplished the bill should go to the house floor for a vote.
In the summer of 2019, Connecticut passed a law requiring Medicaid coverage of donor human milk under certain circumstances. A New Jersey law went into effect in January 2019 requiring all health insurers in the state to cover donated human breast milk for infants under certain circumstances as well. Ellis believes these milestones will serve as inspiration for what is to come in Maine.
If you’re interested in setting up a milk depot in your area, visit the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) website here. Ellis encourages us to share information about the incredible gift of milk donation whenever possible. Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast has incredible donation stories on their blog including those of bereaved parents.