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One year later: WakeMed's new Milk Bank supplies more breast milk to NICU babies

A year after moving into a new space that is nearly triple the size of the original one, the bank can store, process and distribute more milk, which means more sick babies served.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
For two dozen years, WakeMed's Mother's Milk Bank has been supplying breast milk to some of the sickest babies in the region.

From just a cramped, 700-square-foot space, WakeMed staffers would collect breast milk from donors, pasteurize it and distribute it to hospitals in the Triangle and beyond - from Maryland to Florida. While the space at WakeMed's main Raleigh campus was small, the bank's impact has been huge. Breast milk can be a literal lifesaver for critically ill infants because of antibodies that fight disease, illness and intestinal infections. It's also cost effective. Just $1 in donor milk can save $8 in medical costs.

In fact, one recent study found that when the amount of available donor human milk increased in hospitals, there was a decrease over time of necrotizing enterocolitis or NEC, a common and very serious disease among preemies where the bowel can begin to die off. It's found more commonly in preemies who have been formula fed. "They use milk to treat it," said Montana Wagner-Gillespie, WakeMed's milk bank coordinator.

Today, WakeMed's bank is having an even bigger impact for babies with NEC and other serious conditions. A year after moving into a new space that is nearly triple the size of the original one, the bank can store, process and distribute more milk, which means more sick babies served.

In the past, the milk bank would send out emergency alerts, seeking donations because the supply was nearly gone. Wagner-Gillespie hasn't been in that position in about a year.

"I used to come in in the morning and count bottles to see how much we had," Wagner-Gillespie said. "I haven't had to say 'no' to anyone."

In the new space at WakeMed's Cary campus, the bank can store 20,000 ounces of processed donor milk per month and 40,000 ounces in raw milk. It dispenses about 15,000 ounces each month.

No longer inside a makeshift space, the bank's new home was designed specifically for its needs, complete with a lab and a massive freezer to store donations. In the space, donations go through a multi-step process that includes lab testing, the pooling of thawed milk from multiple donors, homogenization, pasteurization and, finally, freezing as it waits to be sent to hospitals and some outpatients.

The milk bank, a nonprofit, delivers about 99 percent of its milk to NICU babies. In some cases, for instance, a baby is born so early that his mother's own milk supply isn't available. In other cases, a mother might be too sick to breastfeed.

A small number of outpatients also use the milk, typically when a mother is working on boosting her own supply. The bank charges $5 per ounce for the milk.

The new space also is seeing more donations thanks, in part, to the new convenient drop off location at at the Cary campus for local moms.

Wagner-Gillespie said that in Cary she's tapped into a community of breast feeders, who are eager to share their supply and help babies. Donors must meet the Human Milk Banking Association of North America's guidelines to give their own breast milk. They also must complete a screening process that includes a telephone interview, paperwork and lab work.

Wagner-Gillespie praises the moms who take the time to pump and donate. When they finish their run as milk donors, she even gives them little retirement gifts to celebrate their service. Two recent retirees had given 15,000 ounces.

"If we don't have them," Wagner-Gillespie said of the bank's donors, "we don't exist."

Now, with the additional capacity to store and process milk, Wagner-Gillespie is working with efforts to encourage more hospitals, especially smaller ones, to offer breast milk. There are about two dozen other milk banks across the country.

"We have a big space to facilitate more," she said. "And we have a staff that is really passionate about it."

WakeMed's website has more information about its milk bank and how you can help.


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