Westmoreland women donate breast milk to help others
The blue Igloo cooler holding 645 ounces of "liquid gold" — human breast milk — represents the first donation to the new milk bank depot at Excela Square at Norwin.
The local women providing the milk say they appreciate the opportunity to help other newborns, and the fact that they can now make their volunteer donations without shipping or driving them to the Three Rivers Mothers' Milk Bank, a nonprofit located in Pittsburgh's Strip District.
What many new mothers anticipate as that first special moment of bonding, when they nourish their newborns with their own breast milk, can sometimes instead lead to moments of frustration, or even sadness.
For numerous reasons, some mothers are unable to nurse, or cannot produce sufficient amounts for their child.
And although some women lose their babies, their bodies continue to respond, producing milk their child will not use.
Donating expressed milk to feed another child is a gift some mothers choose to give.
And as of this week, women who live closer to Westmoreland than Allegheny County can now more easily volunteer to make those donations.
By serving as a breast milk bank depot, Excela Square at Norwin is providing a local drop-off spot for moms who have been accepted into the Three Rivers donation program.
Denise O'Connor is executive director of the Three Rivers Mothers' Milk Bank.
"We serve all of Pittsburgh, West Virginia, parts of New Jersey and Maryland," O'Connor says.
Human milk is particularly important for babies in neonatal intensive care units, she says.
Each year, nearly 11 percent of 140,000 babies born in Pennsylvania and West Virginia are born prematurely. One of the biggest health challenges facing those 15,000 infants is necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a serious inflammation of the intestines that can lead to surgery, poor long-term outcomes and even death. Human milk has been proven to decrease the risk of NEC by 80 percent, according to the milk bank.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast feeding for at least the first six months, if possible.
Donor milk may be prescribed for various reasons, including infant prematurity, allergies, gastrointestinal conditions or failure to thrive.
Via prescription or hospital order, donor milk is provided to babies. Some of those costs may be covered by a family's health insurance
Donors are screened and their milk pasteurized before delivery, says O'Connor.
"Last year, we distributed 57,000 ounces of (donated) milk. We surpassed that by July of this year," she says.
"This is definitely more convenient than going to Pittsburgh. I feel better about it. I know it gets here safely," says Abigail Davis, 24, of Mount Pleasant.
The mother of Naomi Davis, 6 months, she learned about the milk bank from a friend who is a NICU nurse.
"I love knowing that we are helping someone else," Davis says.
"I had so much milk, it's a shame to dump it down the drain," says Brea Sikora, 25, of Irwin, bouncing 6-month-old Avery Sikora.
"We want healthy babies everywhere," she says.
Mia Piccolo, 9 months, developed a dairy allergy at three months, meaning she could not use milk her mother, Jill Piccolo, 29, of Unity, had pumped and frozen.
Now following a dairy-free diet, Piccolo learned from her sister that the milk bank had a need for dairy-free donations.
"I feel very blessed to be able to do that," she says.
O'Connor says there are certain situations or conditions that prevent or delay a woman from immediately nursing her newborn.
"Early delivery might put lactation at risk. Mom may be on medication. She may have had a mastectomy ... gestational diabetes, a low supply. The bulk of reasons mom may need donor milk are short-lived," O'Connor says.
Angie Kovachik, 32, of North Huntingdon nursed her second son, Blake, 1, until he developed an allergy to her milk.
Her pediatrician recommended a special formula for him, and Kovachik was left with a freezer full of pumped milk.
An online search led her to Three Rivers, and she donated her frozen supply, driving it to the Pittsburgh site.
"I was really intrigued by what they did. ... I was hoping someone else could at least benefit from it," she says.
Several of her friends have donated as well, and Kovachik says it will be an option should she have a third child and extra milk.
She hopes word will spread and the new location will encourage more women in the area to consider donating as well.
About 20-25 percent of donor milk is provided to babies on an out-patient basis.
Parents who adopt are an example of an elective need, O'Connor says, and they may purchase donor milk for their child.
Bereaved mothers contribute about 5-10 percent of the milk bank's donations.
"It can be healing. There is no right or wrong," O'Connor says.
The new location, she says, "is perfect."
"I think it will be great for women in (this) area," O'Connor says.
Donors can contribute milk pumped on or before an infant's first birthday.
Michelle Kozubal, 40, of Hempfield, delivered her first child, Cole Scheuermann, now 15 months, six weeks early.
"It was my hope and prayer that I could (nurse). ... Not only did I produce a lot of milk, I produced more than enough. We had to buy a deep freezer to store the milk," she says.
Because her son was premature, he spent time in Excela Health Westmoreland's special care nursery.
At that time, Three Rivers Mothers' Milk Bank was the only regional source to donate.
By her son's first birthday, she had frozen and shipped close to 2,000 ounces, she says.
A teacher in the Hempfield Area School District, Kozubal says she is pleased area women will have a closer location to help offer babies a healthy start to life.
And should she have another child, she likely will continue to donate to the milk bank.
"He (Cole) is healthy as a horse. I want other kids to have that, too," she says.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MaryPickels.