When Katie Loftus gave birth to son Milo nearly two months earlier than expected, her doctor said it would be several days before she was physically capable of breastfeeding her premature newborn.
Milo, who was delivered by emergency cesarean section at BC Children's Hospital in October, spent the first hours of his life being fed through a tube. Because Ms. Loftus couldn't produce breast milk at this point, she was given access to the only breast milk bank in Canada.
The 39-year-old second-time mother jumped at the opportunity and became such a fan of the facility that when she was able to breastfeed, she also became more than a program recipient - she moved on to program donor.
"My husband and I talked it over and we thought giving to the milk bank would be a great way to give back because we had such stellar treatment," she said in an interview.
The BC Women's Milk Bank was opened in 1974 by George Davidson. Dr. Davidson had been caring for a newborn, who was not growing well. The doctor attempted a number of solutions before finally trying breast milk. Only then did the baby improve.
"George decided if he could help one baby, obviously he could help many so he started the milk bank," said Frances Jones, now the program's co-ordinator.
Bank staff began pasteurizing the milk soon after, and the facility underwent some changes in the years that followed. Its official name was changed on a couple of occasions, as was its location.
But in 1999, the bank was nearly shut down for good. The nurse who'd been handling the milk processing retired and the hospital had a discussion, Ms. Jones said, about terminating the program that had seen just 33 recipients the previous year.
"Upon looking at the research and hearing from the members of the community, the decision was made to keep the milk bank open," she said.
After that close call, Ms. Jones said, interest has grown not only in Vancouver but across the globe. Last year, the B.C. bank had approximately 1,700 recipients and 130 donors, and processed 60,000 ounces of milk.
The majority of children who receive the donor milk are in the neonatal intensive-care unit. The milk is distributed based on medical priority and only with a prescription.
Ms. Jones said the bank does get the odd inquiry from a mother whose baby is completely healthy, but who says she's just too busy to breastfeed.
"We don't supply in that situation."
Donors must complete a screening process and blood tests. The BC Women's Milk Bank has never had to issue any sort of recall, Ms. Jones said. The milk is frozen so it doesn't spoil.
Nicole Skuce's mother donated to the bank when Nicole and her sister were growing up. When Nicole gave birth to her own son this past March, she, too, became a donor.
"I have been so lucky with my wee one. We had a very uneventful pregnancy, labour and delivery," she said.
"You just feel really good when you know that someone who's had a really tough start to life is getting a little help."
Last month, the Canadian Paediatric Society said human milk banks should be encouraged and promoted. The national advocacy association said pasteurized human milk is a recommended alternative for hospitalized newborns when their own mother's milk is not available.
"The most vulnerable babies should receive human milk," said Sharon Unger, a member of the society's nutrition and gastroenterology committee. "Only about half of the mothers of these babies will have an adequate milk supply, sometimes because they are sick themselves, or due to the stress of having a very sick baby or being separated from their baby," Dr. Unger said.
The society said the supply of donor breast milk in Canada is limited and even the Vancouver facility can't meet the needs of all babies who could benefit.
Ms. Jones said she routinely fields calls from medical professionals who want to learn more about her program. She said Toronto is developing a bank, as are cities in Quebec.
"We'd like to see regional banks all across Canada," she said.
The demand for donor breast milk has led some mothers to look for help online. Health Canada recently urged parents to be aware of the potential health risks of purchasing milk on the Internet or directly from individuals. In most cases, the health agency said, medical information about the milk donors is not known.
"There is a potential risk that the milk may be contaminated with viruses such as HIV or bacteria which can cause food poisoning, such as Staphylococcus aureus," Health Canada said in its warning.
After a scary start to his life, Milo is doing just fine, Ms. Loftus said. He's healthy and almost up to 10 pounds. She commended staff at Children's Hospital and St. Paul's, where Milo was later transferred. She said she always felt he was in good hands, no matter the situation the family faced.
"That's a pretty huge gift."
The breast milk bank
What it is
The BC Women's Milk Bank provides pasteurized donor milk for high-risk and sick infants whose mothers can't breastfeed.
Why it works
The bank is the only one of its kind in Canada and provides breast milk for those who need it most - generally children in the neonatal intensive-care unit. Pediatricians say breastfeeding is the best choice for the first six months of a baby's life because breast milk has health benefits that formula can't match. Last year, the Vancouver bank had approximately 1,700 recipients and its 130 donors helped process 60,000 ounces of milk. The milk is distributed based on medical priority and can only be received with a prescription. Mothers hoping to donate must go through a rigorous screening process, complete with blood tests. The Vancouver bank's co-ordinator said it's never had to issue any kind of recall. A similar bank is being developed in Toronto, as well as cities in Quebec.
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