Mid-Atlantic Mothers Milk Bank

The milk arrives daily, in deliveries totaling between 2,500 and 3,000 ounces a week. It’s frozen, packaged in bottles or bags. It comes from donors near and far, helping fellow mothers whose children require supplemental nourishment, usually due to being born premature – which, in turn, puts them at higher risk for conditions such as necrotizing enterocolitis.

$730,000 in total grant funding from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation

Throughout her young motherhood, Denise O’Connor always dreamt of working in a milk bank. The fact that she actually ended up starting one, then, shouldn’t come as too big a surprise.

She did it because, eventually, she had to. Her children grew up and there was still no milk bank – in Pittsburgh, or in the state of Pennsylvania.

Before January of 2016, the closest milk bank to Pittsburgh was 180 miles away, in Columbus, Ohio. But now, the Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank, located in Pittsburgh’s Strip District, services local neonatal intensive care units (NICUs), as well as hospitals across the state and in West Virginia, New Jersey, and Maryland. Individual outpatients with certain medical needs also order milk from the bank – including bridge milk, or small quantities of milk provided for a short time to babies that are born full-term, or are generally well, but require a bit of interim supplementation.

The milk bank’s position in the western Pennsylvania region is important. Allegheny County’s infant mortality rate is higher than the national average, as is the gap between black and white infant deaths in Pennsylvania. It’s even worse in neighboring West Virginia, another state without a milk bank and with even higher infant mortality rates than Pennsylvania.

But the Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank is making a difference. By providing vulnerable populations with breast milk, the bank helps babies – especially those born prematurely or with congenital issues – to heal and thrive. Human breast milk has been proven to help protect preterm or ill babies from infection and other medical complications.

Since the Milk Bank opened, the percentage of hospitals in Pennsylvania using donor milk has catapulted from 38 percent to 68 percent. All NICUs in western Pennsylvania now receive donor milk from the bank.

The non-profit organization received a critical boost from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation’s seed grant of $300,000, which helped transition the organization from idea to reality.

“That truly gave us our wings,” says O’Connor.

She says the group is unique in that, while it’s a small non-profit, it has a manufacturing budget. The lab is operational daily from about 7am to noon, where nurses and lactation consultants prepare the milk for transfer to those in need. Milk is pooled, bottled, and pasteurized before being sent out.

The Children’s Home, Children’s Hospital and Magee-Womens Hospital are all recipients. Kristina Waltman, of the Children’s Home, was the milk bank’s 54th donor. She describes the donation process as a simple, rewarding experience.

“For me, in terms of being able to contribute something that I had excess amounts of – and for it to help other children who really needed it – that was a great feeling, for me to be able to give back,” she says. Now pregnant with her second child, Waltman plans to donate again.

It’s that giving attitude that helps serve the 70 percent of women with children in NICUs who can’t provide enough milk for their babies.

O’Connor says that some of the women receiving donor milk for their sick babies receive insurance coverage. Last year, the Milk Bank made a big advocacy push for coverage, and in August of 2017, Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services added Medicaid coverage of donor breast milk to its fee-for-service program.

“That’s a massive first step,” O’Connor says. “To me, the state doing that feels like a public declaration that this is of clinical importance and that this is something that should be covered.”

Looking ahead, O’Connor hopes to purchase a third pasteurizing machine and automate some of the milk bottling process. She also wants to increase volunteer and internship opportunities for local university students. Already, the bank partners with Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience (PULSE), which places recent college graduates at non-profit organizations in Pittsburgh for a year of service and integrated community living.

“We feel so strongly about the benefits and importance of this milk bank that four of us [neonatologists] are actually on the medical advisory board,” says Dr. Beverly Brozanski, director of the NICU at Children’s Hospital. “The immunological benefits of breast milk are indisputable.”

The Mid-Atlantic Mothers’ Milk Bank is accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. Its mission is to support mothers and babies, as well as to support education and research in human lactation.

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