A couple of hours after Mina was born, before I even got to see her for the first time, the nurses in the maternity ward said I should start trying to pump breast milk. They warned that I probably wouldn’t get anything for a few days, especially because Mina was born so prematurely. To everyone’s surprise, I started producing that precious colostrum right away. I remember bringing a tiny container with no more than 10 little drops with us to the NICU when I went to meet my daughter.
Every time I went to see her, I brought more milk. When I was discharged, I started pumping at home. Like clockwork, every three hours, I would pump. It was important to stay on the feeding schedule for a newborn, so my body would be ready for her when she came home. Around the clock, the pump and I became companions. I almost looked forward to my 3AM sessions when I’d talk to Mina’s night nurse and hear how she was doing. Every day, twice a day, I’d bring collected milk to the hospital. Everyone praised me for all the milk I was producing. I was the rockstar of the NICU. Mina was getting the very best start because I was making so much milk for her. By the time Mina passed 12 days later, I had amassed almost 2 gallons of breast milk at the NICU.
The first night home after she passed was, obviously, awful. In addition to grieving our child, my body was still producing milk for the daughter that was no longer with us. I was physically hurting from the milk I wasn’t pumping. When I pumped to relieve some pressure, I sobbed as I poured it out. It was like throwing away the only thing I was able to give my daughter.
We found out from one of our favorite nurses and lactation consultants that we could donate the milk I had collected so far. Over the next few days, I started researching breast milk donation. I didn’t know anything about it. I had no idea it was even a thing, but it seemed silly not to – I had worked hard for it and surely someone could use it. I contacted the extraordinarily kind people at Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast and they asked if I was still pumping. I instantly knew that I wanted to be. Losing Mina was unbearable and losing such a tangible connection to her at the same time was just too much.
The wonderful people at the milk bank handled everything to get me started. They interviewed me, got records from my doctor, paid for a blood test and sent me shipping boxes to get the frozen milk to them. They told me that once they receive it, it’s defrosted, combined with milk from 1-2 other moms, bottled, pasteurized and finally tested for bacteria. I thought that sounded pretty cool and would help feed some little ones in the region.
What I didn’t know is how critical breast milk is for premature babies. The second leading cause of death for preemies is necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC). NEC is a painful, fast moving infection that causes portions of the bowels to die. It’s awful. The truly amazing thing is that preemies who receive breast milk from the beginning of their lives, either their mom’s own milk or donated breast milk, are 79% less likely to contract NEC.
Mina’s milk would be literally saving the lives of other premature babies.
I decided to continue pumping milk through Mina’s due date of May 23rd. Over the course of those many weeks, I donated over 1,200 ounces of milk. That’s just shy of 10 gallons. To put that into perspective, Mina ate between 1-4 milliliters every 3 hours. Every ounce is 30 milliliters. I donated over 9,300 tiny meals to help other babies not only get the best start in life, but to live. 9,300 chances for another mom to know her baby was getting the needed milk before her own supply came in. 9,300 chances for another mom to not experience this loss.
Last Friday, my husband and I decided to visit the milk bank in person to make the final donation. They have a beautiful quilt with a tree on it hanging right in their entryway. Every leaf on this tree represents a beautiful little soul who’s mother donated after her loss. It is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. I am so honored to be a part of such a strong group of mothers.
I am thankful for the kind people at the milk bank for making the donation process so easy in what was a difficult time. They said Mina’s name at a time when most people were afraid to.
I am thankful for my sister for calling the hospital and finding out what I was supposed to do with all that milk. For going to the NICU and picking up two giant containers full of frozen milk when I wasn’t yet able to go back there.
I am thankful for my best friend and husband for supporting my decision to continue pumping. For washing all those tiny pump parts and bottles 8 times a day. For telling me over and over how proud he is of me for donating all of this milk. For being my rock.
Above all, I am thankful for my daughter. Without my sweet Wilhelmina, my body would not have had this gift to give to others. Because of Mina, I know that I have changed the course of another mother’s life. There is another mom in this world who gets to experience all of the wonderful moments seeing their child grow and thrive, because my daughter was here. Because my daughter made me a mom. Because of Mina.
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Stephanie, what a beautiful way to honor your daughter and help others. My son, Brady, was a preemie also, and I was not as much of a milk rock star as you were! My milk took ~5 days to come in, and even then, it was barely enough to cover Brady’s limited feeds. In his first few days of life, he received donor milk – I will be forever grateful that women like you chose to give such an amazing gift to help sweet little preemies like him!
Thank you! I remember feeling so grateful that if my milk didn’t come in right away, I didn’t need to stress about it because donor milk was available and being thankful for the blood donors that made the transfusions Mina received possible. It really is amazing how, even in the NICU, it really takes a village. ❤