Putting Breast Milk to Good Use

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Frozen breast milk from the Breast Milk Project will be shipped to HIV/AIDS orphans in Africa.

Geny Cassady's daughter Madison was born last November with a congenital heart defect and needed surgery at five days old. While she was hospitalized, nurses encouraged Cassady to pump and store breast milk for her daughter's recovery. But that time never came — Madison died of a pulmonary embolism less than two weeks later. For a month, Cassady couldn't look at the containers in her freezer because the sight of the unused milk was too hard to bear. "It wasa very difficult time," she says. Her husband, Bill, finally poured them down a sink drain while she was out.

The Cassadys didn't know of any other choice; doctors and nurses at the hospital hadn't offered any alternatives other than disposing of it. But now a program named for their daughter offers a way for mothers who have lost children to donate their milk in an effort to help some of the world's most vulnerable children. The Madison Cassady Program is a part of the larger International Breast Milk Project, which helps feed children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in Africa with surplus breast milk from mothers in the U.S.

The Project was started by Cassady's friend Jill Youse, who discovered she was overproducing breast milk after giving birth to her daughter Estella last July. She had more milk in her first month of nursing than she would ever need."I used to joke that I had enough breast milk to feed a continent," says Youse, 29. "I had a ton of it and I didn't know what to do." She and her husband Jeremy, a resident at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, knew the nutritional value of breast milk and Youse felt an emotional connection to it as well. She didn't want to dispose of it. So with her freezer filled to capacity, she went online to find uses for the extra milk. Breast millk can be kept frozen for several months, even longer in a subzero freezer.

Youse's search turned up iThemba Lethu Orphanage in Durban, South Africa, which had established a breast milk bank in 2001. Babies infected with HIV, orphaned and abandoned because their mothers had succumbed to AIDS, are cared at the orphanage. In sub-Saharan Africa, three million children, age five and younger, are orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS. Since the virus can transfer through breast milk, and formula is often mixed with unclean water by African mothers, iThemba Lethu relies on donated breast milk to feed the children there and boost their immune systems.

Youse's first donation to iThemba Lethu was her own breast milk. She kept an online journal to share the experience with her family, but other mothers soon became interested in her story of shipping across international borders and asked how they could might contribute. "I figured there were hundreds of moms in the same position," says Youse. She established the International Breast Milk Project in May, sending about 23 gallons of tested and pasteurized frozen breast milk to Africa; DHL agreed to make the delivery free of charge. Within six months, 300 mothers from across the U.S. applied to donate their surplus milk.

The International Breast Milk Project's third shipment, nearly another 23 gallons (this time shipped care of FedEx, on the house), arrived in Durban on Thanksgiving Day. And the sentiment of that holiday isn't lost on anyone. The nurses at iThemba Lethu often give thanks and bless the baby for whom the milk was produced, before they share it with an orphan who needsit. Penny Reimers, a registered nurse who runs the milk bank there, says every time she feeds one of the orphans, "It's like watching a little miracle unfolding. Within days we start to see a difference."