In my “Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy” series, I feature Pittsburgh mothers who have started unique grassroots-type projects within the city. These projects directly benefit the greater good of Pittsburgh and improve the lives of our children, families, and/or other mothers. The series is my humble effort to create a positive, supportive environment among Pittsburgh mothers. I hope that it will a) help make these projects a success b) motivate other mothers to help support these projects and c) inspire other mothers to make their own dreams a reality. An introduction to the series can be found here.
As Thanksgiving approaches each year, I always get a little weepy. I look at my kids. I look at my husband. I look at my niece and nephew, my mom, my truest friends and I think…”God, how did I get so lucky?” I am blessed in so many ways–not least of all for taking a crazy leap of faith and starting this blog nearly two years ago.
Since doing so, I’ve been honored to meet brilliant women who have changed my life. Gisele Fetterman of Free Store 15104. Lynne Williams of Jeremiah’s Place. Tracy Certo of NEXTpittsburgh. These brave women are forging a new Pittsburgh for us–a place where an inspired idea can turn into something much more…true, important, beautiful change for Pittsburgh families.
I would like to introduce you to Denise O’Connor–a woman who recently joined the ranks of Pittsburgh mothers who are driving this sea change. Denise is the founder of the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank (TRMMB), Pennsylvania’s first human milk bank. Denise’s TRMMB will first benefit the tiniest of Pittsburgh’s citizens–the newborns in our city’s neonatal intensive care units. But when these sick infants grow up to be healthy productive adults, the benefits will be absolutely immeasurable.
Here’s my recent interview with my next Inspired Pittsburgh Mommy, Denise O’Connor:
What is the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank?
Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank will be the first human milk bank in our state and will provide pasteurized milk from screened donors to the neonatal intensive care units (NICUs), hospitals and outpatients of both Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Why does Pittsburgh need a milk bank?
Exclusive feeding with human milk is the very best protection against a number of serious and sometimes fatal complications for babies within the NICU. For example, one of the most devastating conditions common to premature infants is necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), an inflammation of the GI tract that happens in 10% of babies born before 32 weeks. Up to 50% of babies who get NEC require surgery to remove a portion of their intestines and up to 25% of babies with NEC die. The use of donor milk can decrease the risk of NEC by a whopping 80%. Babies who receive donor milk also leave the NICU sooner and have higher rates of breastfeeding at discharge.
How will the milk be distributed?
Donor milk is distributed by prescription only. While most of the donor milk from milk banks is used by babies within the NICU setting, it is sometimes also used for outpatients. Donor milk may be prescribed for a variety of reasons including malabsorption issues, immunological disorders, allergies, post surgical nutrition and prematurity.
Is using another woman’s breast milk safe?
Absolutely! Donor milk from Human Milk Banking Association of America (HMBANA) milk banks is typically used by medically fragile babies so safety is a number one concern. Donors are healthy lactating women who must pass a thorough screening process that includes an interview, a detailed medical history, a statement of health from the donor’s physician and a blood screening identical to that done by blood banks. Donated milk is also pasteurized which eliminates all bacteria and pathogens.
How can women donate milk?
A woman would simply call the milk bank and we would start the screening process. Once approved, she would pump milk in the comfort of her own home and store it in her freezer. Once a significant amount is accumulated, she could drop it off at the milk bank or a nearby depot or even ship it to us for processing.
What stage are you in right now with this project?
I am really amazed with how much we have achieved in just one short year. After incorporating last fall, we became part of the Human Milk Banking Association of America (HMBANA), which sets guidelines for the screening of donors, the processing of milk and distribution. Next, we became an official 501 (c)(3) nonprofit. Now we are turning our attention to fundraising. Our total fundraising goal is $500,000, which is all for start-up costs. We are pursuing a number of funding sources, including grants and corporate sponsors.
We also have an Indiegogo campaign, which started on November 10th. Since some of our biggest supporters have been young families, we felt that a crowd-funding campaign would be the perfect way to maximize the impact of those who are the most excited about this project. Our month-long Indiegogo campaign is focused on funding the equipment needed for the milk bank. Our goal is to raise $50,000, but we would be thrilled if we exceeded it since every dollar gets us closer to opening.
How did your professional and personal experiences inspire you to launch this project?
I breastfed all three of my children- Andrew (18), Gavin (15), and Anna (12). I had horrible latch issues with my first child and if it were not for Le Leche League and a very helpful lactation consultant, I would have never made it through that period. After that experience, I decided to become a Le Leche League Leader. Ten years ago, I also became an IBCLC certified lactation consultant and have been in private practice ever since.
As a lactation consultant, I have long been aware of the health benefits of breast milk for vulnerable infants. I have been telling colleagues for ten years that I wanted to establish a milk bank in Pittsburgh, but felt that the medical community in our city wasn’t ready for it yet. Last July, I stumbled upon a story on KDKA about a local woman who donated her milk to the milk bank in Columbus. In the story, Dr. Nilima Karamchandani, director of West Penn’s NICU was interviewed. At one point, she said that she wished this service was available in Pittsburgh. “Aha!” I thought, “It is time!”
I called Dr. Karamchandani and told her I would be willing to give it a go if there was interest at the other hospitals. I began cold-calling all of the NICUs in the area and their directors all wanted this service. When I reached out to HMBANA to see what would be involved I realized that it was all very doable. Now neonatalogists from every one of those NICUs are involved in this project–as members of our board of directors or on our medical advisory board.
How do you balance your work and personal life?
I believe that you can have it all, just not all at once. I definitely stepped back and focused on my children during their early years and I have no regrets. When my parents got sick, I lightened my professional responsibilities so I could spend time with them. Now that both of my parents are gone and my children are teens, I have the time to devote to a large project like this. The timing is just perfect for me.
While working on this article, I had one last conversation with Denise O’Connor. It was a few days after her Indiegogo campaign had launched. Although she was far from her $50,000 goal, the campaign had already raised over $6000.
She confessed, “People are asking me, ‘What if we don’t reach our goal?'”
Although I didn’t say it, the truth was that I wondered the same thing.
“But I don’t worry about it,” Denise said, “I have faith we’ll get there. This is finally the right time.”
Denise has an incredible aura of confidence, capability, self-sufficiency. Her words reassured me. I believed her.
I also thought the statement reflected one of Denise’s greatest strengths. Patience.
She waited TEN years for the medical establishment to catch up with her vision of creating a milk bank in Pittsburgh. She didn’t rush them. She didn’t rush herself. She spent time at home with her kids–enjoying their young years. She spent months caring for her dying parents–savoring her last moments with them.
“I don’t have any regrets,” she said.
I believed her.
And when the time was right, she recognized it and had the courage to forge ahead.
Pittsburgh, we should be very, very thankful that Denise is a part of our city. She is that one-in-a-million individual with an inspired idea and the skills to bring it to fruition to change our lives.
Denise–we BELIEVE in you and the Three Rivers Mothers’ Milk Bank and all the beautiful benefits it will have for our sweet, little babies. We are here to help you.
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