Strip District facility's 'life-saving' breast milk collections crucial
Katie Bentz's body was producing breast milk on overdrive — for good reason.
After her son David's birth, nurses advised her to pump more milk to help treat his jaundice. David got better. Bentz began producing milk in large quantities.
“My body felt like it needed to make enough milk for an army of children,” she said. “It was overproduction, for sure.”
Instead of wasting it, Bentz, of Ross, did an online search for milk donation options. Up popped the words of the recently-opened Three Rivers Mothers' Milk Bank on Penn Avenue in the Strip District.
After undergoing an interview and medical screening process, Bentz, 34, dropped off her first donation in November — about 1,400 ounces of milk.
“I figured it's going to benefit the little babies, and I can put the inconvenience of pumping aside,” she said. “It's become part of my routine.”
This month, the milk bank is expected to deliver its first batch of donor human milk to neonatal intensive care units in hospitals across Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The nonprofit organization in December received accreditation to process and distribute milk by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America.
“It's so exciting to be able to supply milk to little babies,” said Cyndy Verardi, the milk bank's laboratory manager. “And it's such a cool thing to be a part of. There's such a large need out there for the little preemies out there. My job is to make sure that the milk we collect is safe and wholesome for them.”
In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended babies weighing 3.3 pounds or less receive human milk. Breast milk protects preterm infants against diseases such as necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC, an intestinal disease that can be fatal. Human milk can decrease the risk of NEC by 80 percent.
That's why Denise O'Connor, the milk bank's founder and executive director, hopes to collect and process at least 250,000 ounces of donated breast milk annually. The building is equipped with two custom-built pasteurizer machines, a bottling laboratory, freezers and a classroom.
“Breast milk is life-saving,” said Danielle Gorman, the milk bank's screening nurse in charge of intake. “It's amazingly important, and we are so lucky that we're here doing what we are doing. Denise worked so hard to make this dream a reality.”
During a recent tour of the building, O'Connor showed off three large freezers full of donated breast milk and a memorial wall mural of painted flowers to commemorate the babies of bereaved mother donors whose children died after birth. The milk bank named the memorial wall after their first donor mother and her baby, Ashton, who recently died. The family has not gone public with their story.
O'Connor projected after talks with other milk banks across the country that 5 percent to 10 percent of donated milk will come from bereaved mothers.
“So far, the milk bank has raised more than $740,000 in grants from the area's foundation and corporate community, along with individual donors. More than 140 women have committed to donating breast milk, and the organization is averaging about 12 to 15 inquiries a week.
“That's a pretty big start considering the fact that we just opened,” said O'Connor, a lactation consultant. “We'll try to grow as quick and fast as our hospitals need us to.”
She said she eventually hopes for 100 milk donors a month.
“It's phenomenal to have this resource in Pittsburgh where there are so many baby hospitals,” Bentz said. “I'm really proud to contribute.”
Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or email@example.com.