How to save a life

On Thursday, 20th November – my son's fourth birthday, the fourth anniversary of the day on which I entered the wild, challenging, fascinating, wondrous world of parenthood – I spent the morning driving out to a distant service station to meet a woman in the car park and give her eleven and a half pints of breast milk.  Never let it be said that I don't push the boat out when it comes to marking significant dates.

I never expected to end up as a breast milk donor.  For one thing, the current obsession with keeping babies Exclusively Breastfed Until Six Months meant that I believed I should be stashing every ounce I could pump against possible future shortage once I got back to work.  For another, I couldn't see how I'd fit milk donation into a life already overbusy.  I vaguely assumed that the milk would have to be delivered as soon as possible so that it didn't go off, and pictured myself trying to make it down to the nearest neonatal intensive-care unit in my lunch hour with breast milk bags in hand – if I was taking the milk along on a daily basis, how would I ever find time to pump it in the first place?  As worthy as the whole endeavour of milk donation sounded, it also sounded like a complication in my life that I didn't need.  This may not be very noble of me, but I didn't want to bother.

Then, my sweet little daughter decided that she preferred formula to pumped milk during the days that I was out at work.  We discovered this just before she turned six months, and it was a revelation; suddenly it turned out that the hours of screaming with which she had tortured my husband every afternoon weren't inevitable after all, and that if Barry could stop reminding her of my existence by feeding her on my milk then she was far happier about my absence.  However, I still wanted to breastfeed during my days at home; and, although I tried cutting back on my pumping frequency at work, ultimately it didn't look as though I could manage to breastfeed her three days a week and still get through the other four without pumping.  Or, at any rate, I didn't want to risk it; that way lay supply drop and/or mastitis.  I was going to be stuck with hooking up to that pump for a good few months to come, and, since I didn't want to just chuck the milk out, I needed to figure out something to do with it.  So, that was how I ended up googling 'breast milk donation'.

The USA, I discovered, has rather more opportunities than the boring old UK for finding good homes for unwanted breast milk.  If I'd lived in America, I could have arranged to send it to Africa for HIV-infected babies or to pass it on to mothers who couldn't produce their own in a kind of long-distance modern version of wet-nursing.  Neither of those options seemed to be available to me on this side of the Atlantic, but what might be available was the United Kingdom Association for Milk Banking, a central organisation based at Queen Charlotte's in London. 

Yes, according to their webpage, they would take donations of frozen milk up to three months from the date of freezing.  This unfortunately excluded at least some of the milk residing in my freezer, as I'd been going by the LLL guidelines and saving it for four months; however, the standards for donated milk are stricter, which is fair enough.  It was even possible that they might send a courier out to pick it up.  On the minus side, it appeared that mothers whose babies were over six months – as Katie was by then – could not become new donors.  While this cut-off made a certain amount of sense, given that milk composition changes over the time that a woman lactates and therefore the milk I was currently producing probably wasn't of the ideal composition for a premature baby, it seemed illogical that it applied only to new donors; mothers who were already donating, the webpage informed me, could continue donating after their babies hit six months.  What the hell – since I was short of other options, I figured it wouldn't hurt to ring up and ask.

So I rang up and asked.  Well, actually I rang up and got a slightly breathless-sounding message on an answerphone from someone called Gillian Weaver, and rang up again and got the same thing, and rang up again… but, after a lot of trying, eventually got through to the actual Gillian Weaver and then asked.  Yes, she assured me, they could indeed use my milk, pumped more than six months after Katie's birth or not.  The fact that I didn't sterilise my pump parts after washing them – a necessity for pumping milk for donation, according to the website – would also not be a problem in practice, it seemed.  I wondered if a similar gap existed between their posted rules and what they'd actually accept as far as the age of the milk was concerned, but it seemed not – there was a bit of leeway, but they did need to receive the milk and start the pasteurisation process within approximately three months of it being pumped.  However, they could sometimes donate milk to research projects when it couldn't be used for babies, so it was just possible that they'd be able to find some use for even the older stuff.  I would need to fill out a questionnaire, and have blood samples taken and then repeated three months after my last donation to confirm that I was free of HIV or anything else that could be transmitted, and we would have to figure out somewhere to meet to hand over the milk; I lived too far away for them to send a courier, but it was possible that we could find a place to meet at some appropriate in-between point if we were ever travelling in the Londonwards direction, something we do do from time to time for various reasons.

All of this took even more time to set up (except for the blood sampling; Gillian gave me the forms and sample tubes she needed when we did eventually meet, I had the samples taken at work, and posted them back in a pre-prepared envelope).  Gillian, at the time, was managing the milk bank entirely single-handed; I was pleased to find out that she acquired an assistant a few months later, as it sounded as though she needed one very badly, but at the time I was trying to sort out the milk donation she was having to do everything herself and was swamped.  So, it took while for her to get round to sending out the questionnaire that I needed to fill in and send back before being officially accepted, and then a while more for me to get through to her again to arrange a date and place where we could meet up.  This was unavoidable, but pretty darned frustrating – I ended up having to throw out quite a bit of milk that had gone past its date.  (I kept what I could, even when it went over the date – after all, there was always the chance that they'd be able to pass it on to a research project – but the freezer shelf was filling up very rapidly, and I had to throw out some of the expired milk just to make room for the new stuff I was pumping.)

However, we finally managed to pull it all together.  Gillian would meet us in a layby on our way to visit my mother for the weekend; if we could bring the milk with us in a labelled bag inside a cool box, we could pass it over to her to take back to the milk bank in her own cool box.  I was a nervous wreck over the number of things that could potentially go wrong and leave me with a lot of defrosted, wasted milk (Gillian was totally blasé about it – she probably does this sort of thing all the time) but, in the end, it all went swimmingly.  I loaded the milk hastily into a large plastic bag inside our cool box while Barry and the children waited for me in the car, heaved it onto the back seat next to Katie (who then sucked on a bottle of formula as we sped down the motorway, a barefoot shoemaker's child), liased with Gillian via mobile, and we met up and exchanged the milk for the blood sampling kit with no problems.  (By the way, did I mention that this was on a Sunday?  And, as I said, Gillian apparently does this kind of thing quite often, on top of the hours she works during the week.  This woman is an unsung heroine.)

Three months later, we repeated the process for the milk I'd pumped since the first donation, with just as much associated hassle in arranging it.  I gather that my struggles will at least have contributed to making life easier for the next person, since Gillian started looking into the possibility of me posting the milk and it does look as though that's going to be an option they can arrange for future donors.  However, I did not want to waste more milk waiting around for this to get set up and confirmed, so I arranged to meet Gillian again.  In the end, once again, it did all fall into place.  Gillian had a trip in our vague general direction planned for November 20th, and I'd already booked the day off in honour of Jamie's birthday.  While this wasn't exactly how I'd planned to spend it, it did have the advantage that I could tie the trip in with our annual trip to buy Jamie's clothes for the next year (and, this year, to buy Katie a few appropriately pink things to supplement her brother's hand-me-downs) and leave the kids with Barry, thereby meaning that for once it would be possible to do the clothes shopping without having to chase Jamie round the stores simultaneously.  Also, as it happened, the date worked out perfectly from the point of view of the milk expiration; it was exactly three months from the date I'd pumped the oldest milk that I had in the freezer at that point, so that was the ideal date for donating the maximum amount without wastage.  The town we go to for the shopping is on the way to London, and Barry suggested a service station around twenty miles further on for the handover so that the driving would be at least vaguely divided between us (though I think Gillian still bore the brunt of it.  Oh, well – at least I put some effort in.)

Once again I was somewhat nervous about it all beforehand, but this time was actually easier than the last as I had less milk to load into the cool box and didn't have three people waiting impatiently for me in the car while I tried to pack it.  I loaded the milk into our cool box, piled every freezer pack we possess in on top (probably a mite excessive, since I suspect the risk of it it defrosting on the way was not really that great, but "Let's err on the side of caution" will probably be engraved upon my tombstone), drove out to the service station, handed over to Gillian, drove back to the town with the clothes shops in, and did the necessary shopping (and a bit of Christmas shopping for Katie while I was at it) before heading back home.  As mornings away from the daily grind go it was a mite unconventional, but a trip without the kids is a trip without the kids and I treasured it.

Gillian will post the stuff for my final blood tests to me in three months' time, and that will be the end of my involvement with the world of milk donation.  I'd always planned to pump until Katie's first birthday before stopping, and had in fact reached the stage of counting down Pumping Days Till Birthday before I got the November 20th date sorted out for the milk drop-off with Gillian.  Since there wasn't going to be anything I could do with any milk I pumped after the drop-off (this close to my original target for stopping pumping, I was certainly not going to keep going for long enough to collect enough milk to make a third drop-off journey worthwhile), I then made that my target date instead.  Stopping date would not be quite accurate as stopping pumping is something that shouldn't be done too abruptly and I knew I'd need a bit of extra time to wind down production to a point where I could stop without undue discomfort, but I aimed for that date as the start of the wind-down.  I pumped with renewed vigour in the days leading up to the 20th, pumping as much as I could to hand over to Gillian, and after that I was very ready indeed to call it quits.

There have been some minor inconveniences associated with milk donation (apart from all the major hassles over getting the milk to Gillian).  I have to keep to stricter lifestyle standards than I would if I were merely pumping for my own healthy child – these haven't been unduly onerous, as I'm a rather boringly clean-living person by nature, but there have certainly been times when I'd have liked to be able to have an extra cup of coffee without worrying about going over my limit or to be less obsessive-compulsive about hand hygiene for each pump.  While it's good to be free of those strictures, they were never more than a minor and manageable hassle.

The grand total of both donations, by my calculation, was just over three and a half gallons.  Some of that won't have been usable for babies, having been more than three months old by the time I could donate it; still, since there's always the chance Gillian found a research project to give it a good home, so I shall count that.  I did ask her whether they'd been able to use any of it in view of it coming from a mother whose baby was over the six month mark.  Oh, yes, she assured me.  While she needed to be very careful with the milk given to babies who were exclusively on breastmilk, supplementing babies with small amounts of milk was a different matter; they could certainly use my milk for that.  Even subtracting whatever was more than three months old (I haven't worked that out, as I don't really want to know how much may have been wasted), dividing the remainder of three and a half gallons into appropriately small amounts could add up to a hell of a lot of babies.  It's a peculiar and awe-inspiring feeling to realise that I don't even know, and will never know, just how many babies have been fed on my milk; that it could easily be dozens.  It certainly helped reconcile me to the prospective end of lactation.  If I have to bid farewell to this amazing ability of producing milk, at least I have the consolation of knowing that I made very thorough use of it while I had it.

While the title of this post is probably over-optimistic, it seems not unreasonable to believe that all that milk might ultimately have provided at least some benefit to some baby somewhere.  At any rate, I'm glad that circumstances led me down the path of being a milk donor; it's something I look back on with pride, and I'm writing this post in hopes of making more breastfeeding women aware of milk donation as an option worth considering.

Incidentally, we also celebrated Jamie's birthday in more conventional fashion by giving him a large box of Lego.  He loved it.

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1 Comment

Filed under Milky milky

One response to “How to save a life

  1. Rob A

    I think it’s great that you’ve done this.
    My wife wanted to donate, but as our son was one when he stopped breastfeeding, and she hadn’t pumped before that, we were told it was too late to start.

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