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Mississippi is in need of donor breast milk for vulnerable babies

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Francis De La Rosa of Brandon went into labor with her twins at 26 weeks pregnant in July 2021. Her son and daughter were born weighing about two pounds each, and they were immediately whisked away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Merit Health River Oaks Hospital. 

De La Rosa has worked at Mothers’ Milk Bank of Mississippi since 2017. She started off as a lab technician working to process donated breast milk for premature babies in the NICU and then rose through the ranks to executive director. 

She knew the importance of breast milk for premature babies, but after her twins were born, she experienced it firsthand. For about three days before her supply came in, her babies received donor milk.

“I went from being part of the organization that helps provide donor milk to the NICU mom who was needing donor milk for her babies while she worked on her supply,” De La Rosa described in a post on the bank’s Facebook page. 

Francis De La Rosa, director of Mothers’ Milk Bank of Mississippi, and her son Luka De La Rosa pose for a portrait inside of Mothers’ Milk Bank of Mississippi in Flowood, Miss., Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

De La Rosa’s daughter, Emmalee, tragically passed away eight days after she was born. Her twin Luka spent more than two months in the NICU, and he is now seven months old.

De La Rosa said she is “so grateful that this organization exists — that it was able to provide my babies nutrition and fill the gap until I was able to take over.”

But from 2020 to 2021, there was a 30% decline in donations to the Mothers’ Milk Bank, the only bank accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA) in the state. As a result, it can’t fill some orders for hospitals, said De La Rosa and Dr. Rebecca Saenz, the medical director of the bank.

That’s a problem for a state like Mississippi, where one of every seven babies born in 2019 in Mississippi were preterm, or born before the mother reached 37 weeks of pregnancy, according to the March of Dimes.

The state ranks 50th in not only preterm birth but also infant mortality, child mortality, low birthweight and neonatal mortality, or death within the first 28 days of being born, according to America’s Health Rankings

Breast milk can be life-saving for premature, low birth-weight and otherwise vulnerable babies.

“These babies in neonatal intensive care units rely on breast milk to help lower the risk of severe intestinal infections called NEC, necrotizing enterocolitis,” said Dr. Anita Henderson, president of the Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a member of the board of directors for the bank.

“Many moms are able to pump and give their babies in the NICU their own breast milk. Some mothers are unable or unwilling to do so and their babies are given donated, pasteurized breast milk which helps keep them healthy and protect their intestines,” she continued.

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The decline in donated milk is not unique to Mississippi. 

“In efforts to meet the increasing demand for donor milk, coupled with a decline in milk donations, the (HMBANA) and its member milk banks across the United States and Canada are urging healthy, lactating people to consider donating to their local milk bank today,” a January release from HMBANA stated. “Doing so is essential to maintaining the stability of the donor milk supply, which ensures life-saving medical treatments for high-risk infants.”

Three-day-old Matilyn holding her mother’s hand in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Credit: Courtesy of Myrelle Penquite

Myrelle Penquite of Brandon delivered her now eight-month-old daughter Matilyn at 28 weeks pregnant. Matilyn would go on to spend over three months in the NICU, including a stint at Children’s of Mississippi for a heart procedure. 

Matilyn, like De La Rosa’s twins, received donor milk the first few days before Penquite’s milk supply came in.

But as the weeks and months passed, Penquite began producing more milk than the hospital could use for Matilyn — a surprisingly emotional development. 

“As a NICU parent, you almost feel hopeless because there’s not really much you can do for your baby. You can’t hold them when you want to, you can’t comfort them, there are limitations on what you can actually do,” she said. “So one of the biggest things was I knew I was taking care of her when I was pumping (breast milk).” 

As her freezer began filling up with pumped milk, a nurse told her about the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Mississippi, where she went on to donate nearly 1,000 ounces of breast milk.

“I wanted to donate to help a family like another mom helped my baby,” Penquite said. “The process was very easy — a lot easier than I thought it would be.” 

Donating to Mississippi Mothers’ Milk Bank requires completion of a questionnaire screening and bloodwork to ensure eligibility. Employees at the bank contact both the mother’s and baby’s doctors to ensure they are both healthy and safe. 

Breastfeeding is beneficial for both babies and mothers, said Saenz. It’s associated with more robust immune systems in children and a lower risk of heart and other diseases as adults. It is also associated with a reduced rate of breast and ovarian cancer for women. 

Those who are interested in becoming donors can call the Mothers’ Milk Bank of Mississippi at (601) 939-5504 or visit the site. The bank is hosting a milk drive Friday from 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m, and staff encourages potential donors to call ahead for the pre-screening. Donors will receive a T-shirt, water bottle and refreshments.

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