Kelli Russell donating an amazing 38 gallons of breast milk to premature infants across the country. (Photo: Kelli Russell)
A mother of two in North Carolina was blessed with such an overwhelming supply of breast milk after her second pregnancy that she decided to give it away — 38 gallons worth — to those who need it most: premature babies who are fighting for their lives.
“An issue close to my heart is premature infants — they need food, and breast milk is the best option for them,” Kelli Russell, 32, a public health instructor at East Carolina University, tells Yahoo Parenting. She notes that while she is not adamant about all moms breastfeeding and believes it should be a choice, preemies are especially prone to an infection called necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), which can be fatal and which is best avoided by feeding with breast milk rather than formula. But many postpartum moms of preemies are in stressful situations that can make producing enough milk very difficult.
“So why would I want my milk to benefit a body builder, or even researcher, when I wouldn’t know exactly where it’s going?” Russell says, referring to the growing practice of selling milk as a superfood to folks looking for natural sources of high protein.
Russell shipped coolers packed full of her milk to a milk bank in her state of North Carolina. (Photo: Kelli Russell)
One reason, of course, would be the fee she could command: Breast milk can sell for anywhere from $1 to $6 an ounce online, tempting many women in Russell’s position to pump for profit. But this generous mom couldn’t fathom going that route — even though, as she tells local news station WITN, “I probably could have put one of the children through college with this if I was paid.” (Not exactly, but with her 38 gallons — about 4,880 ounces — upwards of $29K could have been a nice start.)
Russell, who lives in the town of Washington, says that with her first child, 4-year-old Allison, “I had just enough milk.” But with her son, Holden, now almost a year and a half old, she lactated so furiously that she had to start pumping when he was nine days old just to keep up with her milk supply. “He started sleeping through the night at 11 weeks, but I couldn’t because I was so full that I had to get up to pump at least once a night,” she says. “And he never needed [that milk].”
Her regular freezer started overflowing with bags of pumped milk by the time Holden was a month old, Russell explains, so she invested in a separate deep freezer that they kept outside. “It was full in three months,” she says.
When she asked both her gynecologist and pediatrician about what to do about her overproduction, “neither had any ideas,” short of her taking a drug to lessen her milk supply. “But I was against that, because it could’ve completely dried up,” she recalls.
That’s when Russell took to online searching and discovered the Human Milk Banking Association of North America (HMBANA), a nonprofit network of 18 milk banks, established in 1985, that accepts donations from women to be screened, pasteurized, and distributed to neonatal intensive care units around the country. The HMBANA led her to the participating WakeMed Milk Bank right in her home state. After making contact and going through a three-week process — during which she was screened for diseases and drug use, gave her health and travel history, and got sign-offs from both her gynecologist and pediatrician (to ensure that Holden would still have enough milk for himself) — she was approved for donation.
Holden, who had more than enough milk for himself, helped mom ship off the extra supply. (Photo: Kelli Russell)
“They mailed me regular Igloo coolers, and I packed them as full as I could, along with a biohazard form, and then contacted FedEx for an overnight pickup, which WakeMed paid for,” Russell says. She donated gradually, about 500 ounces at a time, to make sure she always had enough on hand for her son. To date, her milk has been sent to more than 44 hospitals. Her hope — along with that of the milk bank coordinators — is that more women become aware of the option.
“Milk banks have been around since the ’80s, but unless you had a premature baby or were working in a NICU, you probably wouldn’t know about them,” Montana Wagner-Gillespie, the coordinator at the WakeMed Milk Bank, tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s all very word of mouth, and we’re very lucky we have what we do.” She advises any other overproducing moms to consider donating, and to start by either visiting the main HMBANA website or contacting WakeMed, which pays for women anywhere to ship their milk overnight, just as Russell did. WakeMed, Wagner-Gillespie notes, has an average stock of 15,000 ounces of raw milk on hand, which is just about three weeks’ worth. So getting the word out about donating is crucial.
Though Russell is now out of the donation business — her son recently weaned naturally, and banks can’t accept milk after 365 days postpartum because of the shift in protein-fat ratio — she has no regrets. “It took a lot of legwork on my end to figure it all out, but it’s been worth it,” she says. “It was the best choice for me to send it to babies — [one of which] could wind up being someone who takes care of me some day, or even marrying my son.”