'A Stranger's Breast Milk Saved My Son's Life'

A stranger's breast milk isn't what most moms put in their baby's bottle, but for mom Angela Marino, donor milk from a mom she'd never met was a godsend. Why? Two years before her pregnancy, the Westchester, New York, mom learned she had benign tumors in her breasts, which required that her milk ducts be removed.


"I knew that whenever I got pregnant, I wouldn't be able to nurse," she says. "But that wasn't something I was concerned about. I knew plenty of babies did fine on formula."

Yet in November 2014 -- just 25 weeks into her pregnancy -- Angela went into early labor and gave birth to two very premature twin boys. One didn't make it; the other, Julian, weighed just 14 ounces -- not much more than a can of Coke -- and was put on life support. That's when Angela was forced to consider carefully what would be best nutrition for her delicate baby, and breast milk became a big priority.

"I knew there were benefits of giving a baby breast milk, especially if they were born prematurely," she says. But while she had heard she could buy breast milk from moms online, that seemed sketchy to her. So she and her husband continued researching online and stumbled across a more reputable option: They could buy milk from a Boston milk "bank" called the Mothers' Milk Bank Northeast.

"I never knew there were breast milk banks until then," Angela admits.

Granted, the cost was steep -- $4 an ounce, or around $72 per day to feed Julian -- and the Marinos' health insurance did not cover it (although some do). Nonetheless, the couple decided to scrape together their savings to pay for it because the bank's numerous safety measures guaranteed the milk was safe to drink. For instance, unlike milk bought online, the volunteer donors' milk was carefully screened for viruses like HIV and pasteurized to eliminate contaminants. And it still contained all the health benefits of breast milk not available in formula.

"While breast milk benefits all babies, it's especially crucial for preemies," explains Naomi Bar-Yam, president-elect of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America. "Their immune systems, brains, bones, and other systems are immature, and need even more protection and support than full-term babies."

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Currently there are 15 nonprofit human milk banks across the U.S., shipping 3.8 million ounces of milk to babies who need it. And although Julian's hospital, Albert Einstein in the Bronx, lacked the proper permit to receive and handle human milk, "when my husband and I approached them about it, they were eager to work with the milk bank to obtain the necessary documentation," Angela recalls. As a result, "Now, anyone who is interested in providing donor breast milk to their preemie will be able to more easily."

Once Angela and the nurses started feeding donor breast milk to Julian at around 3 weeks old, the mom almost immediately sensed a change in her son's health. On formula, Julian had suffered gastrointestinal problems; but those disappeared once he was on human milk, and he started gaining weight rapidly.

"Early on, his pacifier was about the same size as his head," she recalls. "On breast milk he started gaining weight at a really good rate. It was such a huge load off."

By 3 1/2 months, Julian was taken off life support. By 6 months, he weighed 12 pounds and was well enough to come home for the first time.

"One of my happiest memories was the day when I was able to put a regular-sized shirt on him," says Angela. "Another was getting to hold him. He was so tiny, I worried he'd break. That's why the donor milk was so important: We needed to give him every edge he could get."

Did donor breast milk save Julian's life? While it's hard to say for sure, evidence is on her side. Case in point: One of the biggest concerns with preemies is an infection of their intestines called necrotizing enterocolitis -- or NEC -- which can be fatal. Yet studies have found that human milk reduces NEC by as much as 79 percent.

Plus, the evidence seemed all around Angela at the NICU: her baby -- the first to ever receive donor breast milk at the hospital -- was thriving while many other preemies were not.

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"There was another baby born two days before Julian, and he was still in the NICU at 6 months," she says. "It's heartbreaking. I don't know where Julian would be without donor milk."

Since leaving NICU, Julian -- now 7 months -- has been doing great.

"He gains weight at a normal rate and his pediatrician is very pleased with him, especially with what he's been through up until now," says Angela, who adds that they plan to continue feeding her son donor milk for at least his first two years. "He is definitely a fighter, and we will continue to give him give him the donor milk as long as we can."

Angela decided to tell her story with the hopes that other moms would consider giving -- or receiving -- donor milk. And if the cost seems steep, rest assured that donor milk may be covered by health insurance or financial aid from a milk bank. For more information go to the Human Milk Bank Association of North America, or HMBANA.org.


Images via Angela Marino (Julian at 9 days old, left, and 6 months, after receiving donor breast milk)

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