Love in a plastic bottle - the story of the Eastern Cape's breast milk reserve bank

The neo-natal intensive care unit at Uitenhage’s Cuyler Hospital is a very quiet place. Even the happy storybook characters on the walls are painted in mute pastels. No cellphones are allowed. The lights are dim and the ward is warm. Everybody speaks softly. Most times the only audible sound is the soft beeping of machines keeping the unit’s babies, some weighing as little as 740g, alive. Most days sister Anne-Marie Oelofse and her team have only one mission: To keep death away. In here they don’t speak of days. They speak of minutes and sometimes hours and as the nurses keep watch, the parents look on, sometimes just praying. Then the doors open and in walks a woman with a healthy, rosy-cheeked baby in a sling and a sparkly-eyed toddler by the hand. Nurses who usually focus quietly on their tiny little charges look up and smile, greeting the mommy who showed them that sometimes love comes in a small plastic bottle.

Terri Britz doesn’t yet know how to cry. She weighs only 1.4kg. Born at 26 weeks, she came more than three months too early. Since then her soft-spoken doctors, her mother Jacolise and the nurses of the neo-natal 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.

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

Sister Anne-Marie Oelofse knows every agoniszing 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 little 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 that 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 Eastern Cape’s only breast milk bank since 2008. It has become is 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.”

Sister Emmerentia Coetzee suddenly walks briskly into the tiny small little kitchen housing the Breast Milk Reserve Bank. "They need milk at Dora Nginza for Baby Daniels and Baby Tana – the driver is coming,” she announces.

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