Born to Lactate

Best of the breast: Laraine Lockhart Borman runs the Mother's Milk Bank in Denver.
Jonathan Castner

When your professional title is "lactation consultant," things are tough enough. But for Laraine Lockhart Borman, director of the Mother's Milk Bank in Denver, the names get worse.

"We've been called 'lactitions' and 'lactaters' -- every variation of those words," Lockhart Borman says. But there's one more title that really puts blood in her creamy complexion.

"'Dairy queens,'" she says. "That's what a lot of the staffers here at the hospital call us."

The shelves of Lockhart Borman's five freezers are heavy with four-ounce jars of frozen breast milk, each one sporting a thick layer of fat. Sent from collection offices around the Front Range or via overnight mail from distant cities, the frozen jars end up inside Lockhart Borman's office in a HealthOne facility off 19th Street.

A Denver nonprofit, the Mother's Milk Bank collects and distributes breast milk to needy mothers and babies around the region. Her supply of donated milk is impressive; it's enough to make a humbled guernsey tuck its tail between its legs. "Fresh breast milk has a much higher sugar content, so it's very sweet," she says. "You'd say it's yummy if you like creamy things."

After arriving, the milk is thawed and flash-pasteurized, tested for bacteriological safety, then frozen again prior to distribution. Donor moms are screened for HIV 1 and 2, hepatitis B and C and other blood-borne contaminants before being accepted. Potential donors are also prohibited from taking certain medications, which could appear in their finished product.

"We had an East Indian woman who used a lot of curry in her food, and when you opened her milk, you could smell curry," says Lockhart Borman. "Visually, too, milk changes with people's diet. With people who have their gardens come in and have a lot of spinach and green vegetables, you see a lot of greener milk." She adds that studies have shown that babies of mothers who consume garlic and moderate amounts of alcohol want to nurse more frequently. "Babies prefer a little variety, if you will, in flavors."

On a table in the bank's modest milk-processing room is a homemaker-sized hot-water bath used for pasteurizing jars of milk. Another table holds a series of breast pumps awaiting delivery to future volunteers, who will use the pumps to express their milk at home. "It's much more convenient that way," Lockhart Borman says. "If we collected milk here, we'd have to have milking stations and have to herd the women in. Oh, sorry," she says, giggling over the dairy reference.

Donors, most of whom are nursing their own babies, make a serious commitment to a high production rate.

"Pumping gets to be a humorous thing," says Atsuko Ohtake, a doctor who donated milk for two years while she nursed her daughter. "You become enmeshed with the breast pump; you rely on it and take it everywhere."

After returning to her internal-medicine practice following the birth of her child, Ohtake found that juggling her patients, her baby and her milk-laden breasts was a tough task. "I would find myself sitting at my desk at lunchtime with the breast pump hooked up," she recalls. "I'd lean against the desk so I wouldn't have to use my hands and could make phone calls and work on the computer."

On a bike trip, she found herself pumping milk in a campground restroom, to the surprise of other women. "One woman thought I was using the pump to somehow enlarge my breasts," she remembers, "and another woman, who obviously had never had children, asked me if I was on dialysis."

Some women produce so much milk that it becomes a burden for them, Lockhart Borman says. "It takes them a very long time to get their supply down to a normal level. 'My husband says I'm a cow,' and 'I have enough milk to feed the football team' -- donors make those kinds of comments all the time."

One donor mom cut holes in one of her husband's T-shirts to allow her sore nipples time to air and heal. Once, while sending a box of iced milk to the bank, she noticed the UPS driver's face turn an unusually rich shade of red. After he left, she realized that she'd been talking to him in her customized attire.

Founded in 1984, the Mother's Milk Bank is the biggest of the nation's seven milk banks. It distributes about 10,000 ounces of milk per month to mothers in 25 states. At a cost of $2.50 per ounce, the fees are a primary source of funding for the bank. Most health-insurance providers cover the charge.

Milk is given out on a prescription basis to babies who are formula-intolerant or suffering from conditions that require breast milk's easy digestibility and natural antibiotic properties. (A small amount of the milk goes to adults undergoing cancer treatment, organ transplants and other health-draining medical procedures.)

Michelle Moedy, a Denver mom, relied on the bank's stash when her own milk production couldn't keep up with her premature twin daughters' needs. The pair were born nine weeks early, and Moedy credits breast milk with returning them to good health. "My children have beaten the odds," she says. "I'm so grateful to have the breast milk bank as an option for help."

"One comment we hear from mothers is that when their babies are on mother's milk, they're calmer, happier and gaining more developmentally," says Mary Tagge, a registered nurse, certified lactation consultant and coordinator of the bank.

In fact, a 1998 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics called breast milk "the preferred feeding for all infants including premature and sick newborns." Breast-fed babies, the study says, incur fewer digestive disorders, display increased physical and cognitive growth and have higher IQs than their formula-raised peers.

The World Health Organization -- in an effort to promote breast-feeding around the world and fight the formula-is-best message spread by formula makers -- offers hospitals a "Baby Friendly" certification. To qualify, hospitals must break their entrenched economic relationship with formula dealers by turning down funding, free formula samples and other inducements from these manufacturers, who enjoyed sales of around $3 billion last year.

"Formula companies market all over the world, and we don't have the money they do," Lockhart Borman says, offering one explanation as to why breast-feeding is down in many countries. "There's no money in it. No money changes hands when a mother nurses her baby, so it's not given value. It's amazing what it can do to save and improve the life of a child, yet human milk isn't valued because women aren't valued in our society.

"But it's not like we're in competition with formula makers," she adds, "The kids we serve have tried them all, and they do terrible on it."

Of the bank's 2,000-plus donors, Tamera Eggebrecht has been one of the most helpful. In the course of an eleven-month span, she sent over 72 gallons of milk from her College Station, Texas, home. Her motivation for producing this astounding amount of milk (about twenty times more than the average donor) was the death of her newborn son. T.J. Eggebrecht died four hours after he was born from the complications of a fatal birth defect.

An avid believer in breast milk who had nursed three healthy children already, Eggebrecht didn't know what to do with a freezer -- and breasts -- loaded with milk. After receiving a tip about the Mother's Milk Bank, she decided to donate the milk she had hoped would feed her son.

"I made a choice to be as committed as I could, and I worked my life around it," Eggebrecht says. "I pumped as often as I thought my son would nurse were he alive."

Eggebrecht's husband assisted in the efforts, graphing her output on the family computer. The work was healing for both. "When I came home from the hospital, it was a very empty feeling for me," Eggebrecht says. "With no baby, there's nothing to hold in your hands, nothing to cradle, no cries to hear. When my milk came in, that was the closest thing I had to my son. Besides, breast milk is so vital that I didn't want it to go to waste. It's not like blood that we all go in and give. Only breast-feeding mothers can give it, and only for a short time, so the responsibility is great."

Lockhart Borman agrees, though she understands that the culture of her chosen calling may make some people squirm in their chairs. "Yes, it is kind of weird for some people," she says. "They can't get a handle on what it's all about and the miracle part of it. They think it's gross."

But, she adds, "we're not cows. We have an IQ, two sets of teeth and no tail. Why should we drink something that grows in an animal with no IQ and one set of teeth? We're humans; we should have human milk."

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