Banking ‘liquid gold’

Breast milk depot opens in Bensalem

Special delivery: From left, Kristen Quinn accepts a breastmilk donation from Leah Conte, who was joined by her mother, Lynne McMenamin. WILLIAM KENNY / STAR PHOTO

By William Kenny

A donation from halfway around the world launched the Philadelphia area’s newest breast milk depot earlier this month.
New Zealand native Leah Conte gave 500 ounces of her own breast milk so that a new Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast depot could open at the Bensalem offices of Acelleron Medical Products on Aug. 3. The facility may be the first of its kind in the region, according to its founders, and should help hundreds of premature and sick babies get the nourishment they need to survive the delicate early stages of their lives.
“A lot of moms whose babies are in (neonatal intensive care) cannot provide their own milk for one reason or another. Big reasons are they’re separated from their baby, they’re under extreme stress or they’re under medications due to complications in labor,” Amber Merkens, MMBN’s community engagement adviser, said. “So when a mother’s milk is not available, the next-best option is safely pasteurized donor milk, rather than formula. (Babies) have better outcomes, shorter hospital stays with the donor milk, and with the mother’s milk being the first option.”
A breast milk depot is a facility where mothers can donate their surplus breast milk. A central component of the depot is an industrial grade freezer with digitally controlled temperature settings where staff can store individual breast milk donations pending their delivery to a processing facility. The milk must be pasteurized before it can be redistributed for consumption by newborns.
Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast is a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization accredited by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America that dispenses human breast milk to more than 80 hospitals and families in the Northeastern U.S.
But until it opened the depot at Acelleron’s office in Two Greenwood Square, 3331 Street Road, MMBN had no presence in the Delaware Valley. Its nearest depot is in Brooklyn. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia operates a depot locally, but the Human Milk Banking Association lists only one other independently operated depot in Pennsylvania. It’s in Pittsburgh. The association lists no breast milk depots in New Jersey.
Conte, the donor originally from New Zealand, lives in East Windsor, New Jersey. She has an adopted daughter, Amaya, 8. In May, she gave birth prematurely to a daughter, Cora. Conte’s parents, Jim and Lynne McMenamin, traveled more than 20 hours to meet their new grandchild for the first time earlier this month and accompanied Conte to the depot’s ceremonial opening.
“My daughter Cora was born three-and-a-half months premature,” Conte said. “While she was in the hospital, she was initially only being given fluids. And after a while she was taking only one meal of milk. So I was pumping (breast milk) that whole time to maintain my supply and just had this huge amount of milk. I had no idea there was anything like breast milk donation, but my lactation consultant mentioned it to me and it seemed like a good fit.
“I’ve probably got another 500 ounces at home. Now (Cora) has begun to breast feed, I have this supply. So I’ll probably keep donating.”
According to Merkens and Kristen Quinn, a director and lactation counselor for Acelleron, Conte’s prior unfamiliarity with breast milk donation is not unusual. Acelleron distributes breast milk pumps and provides breastfeeding resources to mothers. Quinn learned of MMBN only two years ago while visiting her company’s Massachusetts headquarters. A Northeast Philadelphia native, she resolved to create a depot in her home area.
“Previously, I worked for Preferred Home Healthcare where I witnessed some of the most critical cases of babies who were in severely fragile health,” she said. “When I transitioned into working for Acelleron, I still felt there was a void. I missed caring for babies and making sure they were being taken care of. This (depot project) really spoke to me because I felt the mission was very similar and aligned.”
Although breast milk banks have been around for a century, according to Merkens, they’ve been growing in number and volume recently, as has scientific evidence linking breast milk to improved outcomes for preemies and sick newborns.
“Typically when babies are so small, when they’re so sick, they have immature digestive systems and immune systems,” Merkens said. “They can’t process artificial milk. Common reasons for prescribing donor milk are failure to thrive, allergies, hypoglycemia and formula intolerance, which happens a lot with preterm birth.”
Donor milk can only be distributed to babies via prescription. Generally, insurances do not cover donor milk, so families or providers absorb the costs. It costs MMBN three to four dollars per ounce to collect, process and deliver donor milk, Merkens said. Single feedings typically require one ounce of milk, according to Merkens.
Newborns may feed a dozen times a day or more, Merkens said. Sometimes, the need for donor milk is only temporary because some mothers don’t produce their own breast milk immediately after giving birth.
“Offering donor milk also encourages moms to breastfeed because they feel as though the baby hasn’t gotten formula yet and they see how important human milk is for their baby,” Merkens said.
Having another breast milk depot in the Philadelphia area may not give local babies and mothers better access to donor milk because the donated milk must be shipped out of state for processing anyway. But the facility’s founders hope that its presence in the community will help spread awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding and compel more mothers to donate what they can spare.
“The milk is coming back to the community,” Merkens said. “The donors feel good knowing that their milk is coming back here. It’s about education, letting people know that milk banking exists so that nonprofit milk banks have more supply to give to hospitals.
“And the need is very high for donor milk. We never want to be in a situation where there isn’t enough for the babies who need it.”

For information about breast milk donation, contact Kristen Quinn at 267–972–8008 or kquinn@acelleron.com

William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com.