posted with permission
Four-month-old Max Robinson was strong enough to leave Overland Park Regional Medical Center on Tuesday. His mother, Jennifer Robinson (left), was joined by Nicole Hendrix, whose donation of breast milk gave strength to Max.
As she was getting ready to leave the hospital last week with her baby, a tearful Jennifer Robinson knew how to measure generosity. All she had to do was turn and look at Nicole Hendrix, the woman who had helped the premature baby, Max, to thrive against the odds.
Hendrix had donated her breast milk—gallons of it—to Max after his mother couldn’t make any more. It was a personal gift the hospital had never seen before.
Hendrix had been saving frozen milk for her own preemie daughter, Lillian. Lilli, as she was called, passed away before she could get much more than a little of it.
After multiple surgeries and four anxious months in intensive care, Max finally was healthy enough to leave Overland Park Regional Medical Center in Overland Park, Kansas. He weighed in at a substantial 8 pounds, 13 ounces. Hendrix was there to see him off. “It makes me feel that something good can come out of something bad,” she said.
Robinson said she was overwhelmed by Hendrix’s generosity. “With so much going on with their lives they would think of us,” the Olathe, Kansas, woman said. “It was like they gave him an organ, something that could save his life.”
Overland Park Regional neonatologist Kathleen Weatherstone said the donation played a role in keeping Max alive. Max was born on April 16, four months premature. Lillian was born March 4, also four months early. Both babies suffered from a condition called necrotizing enterocolitis, where blood circulation was cut off to portions of their bowel. It occurs most commonly among extremely premature infants.
Breast milk is believed to be protective against necrotizing enterocolitis, Weatherstone said. And it’s the best-tolerated milk for infants recovering from the condition.
Often it’s difficult, though, for mothers of preemies to give their babies milk. Either their body isn’t ready to produce milk or the stress of dealing with a critically ill child keeps the milk from flowing. [More on induced lactation for preemie or adopted babies here.]
At first, Robinson, 41, was able to provide Max with breastmilk. She had breastfed her two other children. But she soon began to run dry. “It was really frustrating,” Robinson said. “As a mom, breastmilk was one of the only things I could give him to help him.”
Robinson searched for breastmilk banks that provide babies with milk from donor mothers. But insurance plans don’t always cover the charges. She calculated that it could cost thousands of dollars per month.
That’s when Robinson and Hendrix’s stories began to intertwine.
Every three hours, every day - at home, at work, even at church - Hendrix had been faithfully pumping her breast milk and freezing it, anticipating the day when Lillian would need it. “The nurses every day said to keep going,” Hendrix, 29, said. “It wasn’t fun, but I did it.”
For 10 weeks, she saved her milk. So much milk that the Hendrixes had to buy a freezer to keep in the garage of their Kansas City home.
But physicians said that Lillian’s persistent medical problems gave her few opportunities to take any of her mother’s milk. Her condition became so serious she had to be transferred to the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, where she passed away in May. [DrMomma's Note: Not giving mother's milk to premature babies may be one of the gravest mistakes we make today in some NICUs. Many hospitals have moved to a 100% breastmilk NICU policy - all preemies get human milk. And nothing could benefit them more than being skin-to-skin on mom (kangaroo care), even while hooked up to necessary equipment, and receiving mother's milk in whatever way it can be given. Additional thoughts on this subject from Emma Kwasnica here.]
After Lillian’s passing, Hendrix went back to Overland Park Regional to pick up things left behind. She thought of the breastmilk at home in the freezer. “It would have made me sick to throw it out,” she said.
Hendrix asked a nurse in the intensive care unit if she could donate her milk. Word got back to the nurse that Robinson’s baby needed breast milk, and the nurse told Hendrix. “This was a no-brainer,” Hendrix said. “I feel I would have regretted it if I didn’t. I feel I’ve given meaning to my daughter’s life, if this can help save Max.”
The hospital had never arranged to have a mother donate milk to one of its patients. Doctors insisted that Hendrix be tested for HIV, hepatitis, and other infections before Max could have her milk. [DrMomma's Note: I would consider giving my newborn human milk from a mother with an infection before I gave drastically sub par artificial formulas. It is a myth that mothers with HIV or a variety of other infections should not nurse their own babies, and more research needs to be done in this area. The hospital's insistence on testing is more a CYA practice (to avoid lawsuit should something potentially happen) than anything else.]
When Hendrix turned the milk over to Robinson, it filled a large rolling cooler and three small plastic foam coolers. Robinson brought plastic bags of frozen milk to the hospital for the nurses to defrost and give to Max.
Before sharing the milk, the Robinsons and Hendrixes barely knew each other. Hendrix recalls that she and her husband, Shannon, ran into Robinson and her husband, Troy, in the parents’ room at the hospital. “They were worried and we were listening,” she said. “Their son was going through a lot of what we went through.”
Now the families have become friends. Hendrix visited Max several times in the hospital and was one of the first people to get to hold him. “We instantly felt we had a connection,” Robinson said. “If it weren’t for Lilli, Max would not be here. Her little life made a huge impact on his. Someday, he’ll know about Lilli and how selfless her mother was.
Read, The Premature Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Premature Baby from Birth to Age One, for helpful information on gently caring for premature babies.
For more on mother-to-mother milk sharing, see the Breastmilk Donation page, or find an Eats On Feets chapter near you.
Helpful related books, sites, and articles at the Breastfeeding Resources page.