New mom makes life-giving donations

Published 7:26 pm Wednesday, January 14, 2015

KELLI RUSSELL | CONTRIBUTED AN ABUNDANCE: Mom of two Kelli Russell, pictured here with son Holden, found herself in a unique position to donate milk to premature babies up and down the east coast.

AN ABUNDANCE: Mom of two Kelli Russell, pictured here with son Holden, found herself in a unique position to donate milk to premature babies up and down the east coast.

It’s a donation of the most generous kind — giving sustenance to those in need. And for the past year, one Washington woman has been working to save premature babies one unique donation at a time. What she’s donating is breast milk — her own.

A baby born prematurely has a long road to health, one that can be complicated by an infection of the intestinal tract called necrotizing enterocolitis. The infection can cause the death of intestinal tissue and progress to blood poisoning. Formula-fed preemies have a heightened risk of contracting the condition as formula lacks the presence of a good bacteria found in breast milk, and antibodies that boost the immune system. Preemies are in dire need of breast milk to grow and thrive and milk banks have arisen to fill that need.

Their donors are women like Kelli Russell, who had her son Holden one year ago, on Jan. 10. Holden is her second child and Russell quickly realized after his birth that she had an overabundance of milk. Rather than throw away the milk she was continuously freezing, she knew there had to be a need for the oversupply somewhere. A former employee with the Beaufort County Health Department, who taught health education, and now teaches public health courses at East Carolina University, she began researching the issue. First a milk bank in Texas turned up, but looking a little deeper, she found WakeMed Milk Bank in Raleigh. WakeMed is the only milk bank in North Carolina and one of only three serving the entire east coast.

“As of this week, I know I’ve given away over 4,300 ounces,” Russell said.

Considering one ounce can mean up to six feedings for a preemie, that’s 26,000 feedings — and 44 hospitals on the east coast have been the recipient of this one mom’s donations.

Not just anyone can be a donor: Russell had to have both her obstetrician and Holden’s pediatrician sign off on the deal, in addition to having a background screening and blood work done to insure she had no infections that could be transferred through breast milk. Since, however, she’s emptied a deep freezer multiple times: packing frozen milk in a cooler, putting a call in to FedEx to pick up the delivery to WakeMed. WakeMed then picks up the priority overnight shipping tab, pasteurizes the milk and ships it off to babies in need.

Russell knows the good her donation, and those of other moms, have done: recently a friend, and mother of a premature child in Washington, posted to the effect on the blogosphere.

“A friend posted on the blog that if it wasn’t for breast milk her premature baby would have died,” Russell said. “And that’s here in Washington, so it’s obviously needed.”

Russell said that in the past, she did plenty of community service and volunteered with various organizations, but with a 4-year-old and an infant, she didn’t have the resources to volunteer. She could, however, do this.

“I feel like I’ve donated my time and something else that not a lot of people can do,” Russell said. “I hope that other women, instead of trashing (frozen) breast milk when they’re done nursing, will send it off to help other individuals. … I hope folks realize it can do a much greater good.”

Milk banks only accept milk up to 365 days after the mother gives birth, so on Wednesday, Russell sent off her last shipment of milk destined for preemies up and down the east coast. She urged other moms to consider donating, to help enrich, and even save, the lives of those born too soon.

“I encourage all moms to donate if they have extra,” Russell said. “I guess I’ve heard that saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ If everybody would work together, they’d all be doing just fine.”