Milk bank for B.C.'s most vulnerable babies needs help
A critical resource that provides some of the most vulnerable babies in the province with donated breast milk is dealing with rising demand and a facility that isn't well-suited to meet those increasing needs.
The Provincial Milk Bank is located in the basement of BC Women's Hospital in Vancouver, and supplies donated breast milk to sick and premature babies. Co-ordinator Frances Jones said demand has dramatically increased each year for the past decade.
"Last year, we were at almost 4,000 recipients," Jones said.
Those infants aren't just in Vancouver. Donor milk is also provided to the rest of the neo-natal intensive care units (NICUs) in the province.
"There are 13 NICUs and we currently regularly supply 11 of those NICUs. We're hoping by the end of 2019 we will have all 13 sort of online," Jones said.
But with demand increasing 171 per cent in the last two years alone, the current cramped quarters for the bank aren't ideal.
"The machinery that we use doesn't function properly. It gets too warm and then it will shut down," Jones said. The hospital hopes to raise $1.5 million towards a new bank, which Jones said will help them process milk more efficiently.
"Having donor milk makes a huge difference and, as I say, in some cases truly the difference between life and death," Jones said.
One of the babies currently receiving donor milk in the hospital's NICU is Jacob Baker. He was born about three and a half months early, at 26 weeks. His mom, Amber Baker, said it was a "complete surprise."
"There was no reason why he came prematurely, but the doctors say a lot of the premature births are fairly mysterious," Baker said.
Along with spending time snuggled close to his mom, Jacob also gets help breathing with an oxygen mask, as lungs don't fully develop in the womb until 36 weeks.
"Overall he's doing really well, he just needs to fully grow," Baker said. She added she's grateful her son was able to get donated breast milk from the first day he arrived.
"It's really difficult for milk to come in with a C-section as well as with a premature baby," Baker said. "It's better for their digestion, it's better for antibodies, it's just better for them."
Mimi Cheung became a breast milk donor when her daughter Cici was around nine weeks old. Cheung said when Cici was born, there were some post-partum complications and she had to stay in the NICU.
"At that time, I wasn't producing enough milk for her and luckily I was able to take advantage of all the resources that the Women's Hospital provided, and one of them was with lactation consultants," Cheung said. The consulants helped Cheung increase her supply.
"Around nine weeks I was able to produce enough milk for her and also have extra to donate, and that was something that we really wanted to do because we wanted to give back any way we could," Cheung said.
The bank is hoping for more breast milk donors like Cheung to help them meet the demand, and Baker is also adding her voice to the call to donate.
"I will never meet any of the women who have donated, yet I'm so incredibly thankful that they did," Baker said.
"You'll never know how much that has meant."