Bank of human kindness

TERRI Britz doesn’t yet know how to cry. She weighs only 1.4kg. Born at 26 weeks, she came more than three months early. Since then her soft-spoken doctors, her mother Jacolise and the nurses of the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, have fought a desperate daily battle to keep her alive. Her twin sister died two days after their birth of bleeding on the brain.

The neonatal intensive care unit at Uitenhage’s Netcare Cuyler Hospital is a very quiet place.The lights are dim and the ward is warm. Everybody speaks softly. Sometimes the only sound is the soft beeps of machines keeping the unit’s babies, some weighing only 740g, alive. Most days sister Anne-Marie Oelofse and her team have only one mission: to keep death away.

Then the doors open and in walks a woman with a healthy, rosy-cheeked baby and a sparkly-eyed toddler. Nurses who usually focus quietly on their tiny charges look up and smile, greeting Naomi Mitchell, a Redhouse mom who saved a thousand premature babies by donating her breast milk.

Terri weighed only 740g at birth. When she gained 260g to reach the 1kg mark her nurses fixed a big red star to her bed: “Congratulations!” it said, “I now weigh 1kg.”

Unit manager Oelofse knows every agonising moment of keeping premature babies alive and, as manager of the hospital’s breast milk bank – the only one in the Eastern Cape – she also knows how valuable donated breast milk is to nurse these tiny charges to health.

“A newborn baby drinks no more than 1ml of milk at a time, but if a desperate mommy has no milk, it is a crisis,” she says. Oelofse explained that premature babies who drink formula milk are highly susceptible to a fatal disease called necrotising entrocolitis, a form of gangrene of the intestines.

Oelofse has been managing the breast milk bank since 2008. It has become a vital resource in the fight to stop neonatal deaths by supplying donor breast milk to hospitals in Nelson Mandela Bay, including Dora Nginza Hospital, one of the busiest maternity hospitals in the province.

“Our milk bank depends entirely on mothers who are breastfeeding and who find the time to donate milk to us. We never take this for granted as we all know how busy a new mommy is.”

It is here where women like Mitchell come in. Unassuming and soft-spoken, she is the mother of five children all under the age of nine.

Since 2008 she has saved the lives of at least a thousand babies by donating breast milk for those whose mothers are not lactating – by donating her excess breast milk to the bank.

“I wanted to donate breast milk since I first heard about American mothers doing it. I never knew we had a breast milk bank here.

“After I had my third child, I discovered the breast milk reserve bank at Netcare Cuyler Hospital in Uitenhage. I phoned. They came to speak to me and we did an HIV test.

“I always knew about the health properties of breast milk. I breastfeed and I don’t have sick children,” Mitchell said matter-of-factly.

She said after the birth of a child she did not donate milk for the first six weeks.

“I just use the time to breastfeed and bond with the baby.”

Thereafter she uses a breast pump to donate milk once or twice a day.

“When I first started I was very eager and filled six bottles of donated milk every day. I am blessed with a lot of milk,” Mitchell said.

She said there was no specified amount of breast milk mothers could donate.

“A premature baby drinks very little.

“It is quite amazing for me. I can’t donate blood while I am breast feeding,” Mitchell said. “Only breast-feeding mothers can do this [donate milk] and they really, really need it. I have heard how babies die if they don’t have it,” Mitchell said.

“Apart from that there are great benefits for me too,” she added with a twinkly smile. “It is the perfect diet.”

Oelofse said Mitchell had already donated 2000 bottles to the bank. “That is 450 litres of milk.”

“She has fed a lot of premature babies. By our calculations she made it possible for us to feed premature babies for 1200 days. Donating breast milk really saves lives,” she said.

Jacolise Britz’s baby was one of the many whose life was saved thanks to donated breast milk.

Her twins were born 16 weeks early in June.

“It was a Wednesday. I got terrible pains. I thought it might be nothing but by the afternoon I went to the doctor and insisted that they admit me to hospital.

“They called the gynaecologist and he said I was in labour.

“It was a terrible shock. I kept on telling him my babies weren’t ready but the doctor said I must push. I said no, I won’t push. Eventually I had to have an emergency caesarean.

“My babies were born at five minutes past eight and they were so small. They each weighed 740 grams. The one that was born second only lived for two days. She had bleeding on the brain.

“I never knew about donated breast milk. I was scared but the staff said it was very safe. I decided to try it because I had no milk and my babies needed milk. It was all about them,” she said.

“Today Terri is much better. She now weighs 1.38kg and is just over two months old.

“The only thing the doctor and I are fighting with her about is going off the oxygen. She doesn’t want to come off the oxygen. I tell her every day that if she gets that right she can come home with me,” Britz said.

“It meant a lot to me that the breast milk reserve bank could help me. My babies couldn’t have formula milk. It meant a lot that other mommies were prepared to donate their breast milk so my children could have a chance to live. It means a lot to us.”

Sister Emmerentia Coetzee walks briskly into the small kitchen housing the breast milk reserve bank. “They need milk at Dora Nginza for two babies – the driver is coming,” she announces.

As they pack the life-saving little bottles into an ice container, Oelofse smiles. “It is a small bottle of milk but it goes a long way to save lives.”

In the neonatal ICU at Netcare Cuyler Hospital in Uitenhage nobody speaks of days. They speak of minutes and sometimes hours and as nurses keep watch and parents pray, the unit’s tiny patients fight for life. It is here where three women and a 740g baby discovered that sometimes love comes in a small plastic bottle.

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