Saving Lives in Deep Water
During the everyday hustle and bustle of life we often fail to recognize–outside of perhaps a few viral social media links or videos–the compassion and impact others have on our everyday world. However, in the aftermath of a natural disaster our awareness of acts of kindness change. Media coverage shifts from alarms of the impending disaster to stories of resilience, courage, persistence, and the overwhelming desire of many to do more for fellow humans.
Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast as a Category 4 storm on August 25, 2017, dumping 40 to 60 inches of rain before moving out of the area as a tropical storm. Damage estimates are in the billions, and 77 people lost their lives. Storms do not discriminate–families and hospitals and city infrastructures were all affected by this extraordinary act of nature.
“No one knows what to expect,” said Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin (MMBA) milk donor and mom, Angela Stripling. “At best you just lose power, at worst it’s your life or the life of someone you love–so you do everything you can, with the time given, to ensure things are taken care of before a storm hits.”
One of Angela’s top priorities was ensuring the breast milk she had pumped and frozen for donation was moved to a safe location. “Ten years ago a friend gave birth to triplets who ended up spending six months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I knew then that if I ever had the opportunity to become a milk donor and help other babies, I wouldn’t hesitate. So when we thought we might lose power, I loaded up my milk in a cooler and took it to my in-laws’ house so it would be safe for the babies who would need it most.”
Angela successfully saved all of her frozen milk – hundreds of ounces were kept safe from the storm.
Marlene Cantu, a nurse at Houston’s Memorial Hermann hospital, had submitted an application to become a milk donor before Hurricane Harvey, but she wasn’t as lucky as Angela. Marlene withdrew her application after a hurricane-caused power outage resulted in her losing all of her frozen milk.
“We’re safe, but my breastfeeding journey is over and I’m just sick that all of the milk I planned to donate is gone,” said Marlene. “As a Labor & Delivery nurse, I know how beneficial mother’s milk can be, especially for preterm babies and I wanted to do something to help them beyond being a nurse.”
Human milk is the best nourishment for all human babies, but it is life-saving for the more than 60,000 medically fragile babies born annually in the U.S. Some of these babies will have their needs met by their biological mothers, but many more will have to rely on donor human milk to be able to grow and thrive.
Houston’s large medical community utilizes nearly 28% of the donor human milk processed at MMBA each month, and Houston-area mothers provide nearly 26% of MMBA’s milk supply.
Emergency preparations for Hurricane Harvey include couriering donated milk from our milk depots to the milk bank before the storm, and encouraging all approved milk donors to drop off their milk at the depots where emergency generator power may keep it safer than at their homes. Emergency protocols also lead the milk bank to distribute more donor milk than usual to the hospitals in the storm’s path – a procedure taken in order to ensure that interrupted transportation of milk will not leave infants without milk.
Despite these protective protocols, MMBA faced some difficulties with supply and demand of donor human milk. Harvey stayed too long, causing many people to relocate to unflooded areas. They were cut off from their own stored supplies of milk, and from their babies in the NICUs. Some donors lost their milk supplies from the stress of the storm itself.
MMBA prepared for this loss of incoming milk donations by issuing a Call to Action – a plea for more healthy lactating women outside of the storm’s path to apply to become milk donors so that MMBA could continue to serve all infants with a medical need for milk. Within days, women from all over the country responded, and as a result, MMBA was able to successfully screen and approve a record 109 new milk donors in one month–and most importantly, all needs for donor human milk were met.
But securing a steady and safe supply of incoming milk donations was just one hurdle in the post-Harvey race.
As torrential rains brought Houston to a standstill, roadways leading to and throughout the city were shut down, making it impossible for mothers to reach their babies in the hospital, or for FedEx to deliver donor human milk to the hospitals and outpatients in the area. MMBA’s search for a way to deliver milk safely to the babies in need led to a local champion–
Special Operations Captain Steve Bush, a local paramedic, Lone Star Helicopter pilot, and father of 16-year-old twins who were born premature.
“I wasn’t personally familiar with the Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin, but everyone around me seemed to be. So when they needed help to deliver milk to the affected hospitals, I wanted to help,” said Steve Bush. “I’ve worked as a paramedic and flight medic for years, but flying from one hospital to the next delivering life-saving milk is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and let’s be honest, a unique way to help save a life.”
Steve generously agreed to offer his services as a helicopter pilot and deliver donor milk to Houston and Galveston area hospitals. He spent the day obtaining permission to use hospitals’ heliports, creating a flight plan, and then meeting the MMBA team to load up his helicopter with the donor human milk. He then spent most of the night flying from one hospital to the next delivering milk and helping save our state’s most fragile babies.
MMBA’s response to Hurricane Harvey required financial resources as well – never has a baby been denied milk because of lack of insurance, and screening new donors is costly. Caring individuals and organizations including Triumphant Love Lutheran Church’s Endowment Fund stepped up with substantial monetary donations. These gifts ensured that our operations could rise to meet the need.
Although the storm has officially passed, the need for support is far from over. Clean-up efforts continue full force in Houston and sources estimate it will take nearly two years to recover from the $180 billion worth of damage. But there is little to no doubt the city will recover, it’s just a matter of time.
MMBA, with your continued support, will meet the needs of Houston and surrounding towns affected by Harvey, and we’ll be ready for the next storm as well.
For more information about how you can get involved, visit https://www.milkbank.org/ today.