Yesterday I did something that three years ago I would have imagined impossible: I applied to donate my excess breast milk to the human milk bank at the Taipei City Hospital.
I could not produce enough breast milk to feed my eldest son. He was born over two months’ prematurely, and we came close to losing him due to an infection he developed soon after birth. Given how fragile his health was in those first few weeks and months, I was keen to boost his immune system by giving him as much breast milk as possible. But perhaps due to the stress, or lack of sleep, or due to my body not being sufficiently prepared, I could not give him enough of what he needed. So we supplemented with infant milk formula.
If we had been in Taipei, perhaps things would have been different. The Taipei City Hospital established a ‘human milk bank’ in 2004 to collect breast milk and distribute it to children in need. The hospital is not unique in having a milk bank — there are now many throughout the world — but it is unique in being the only one in Taiwan. It is funded by the Taipei City Government, but hospitals throughout the country can apply to receive breast milk for babies in need. The Taipei City Hospital provides milk for free.
But with baby number two I am actually producing more milk than he needs. So yesterday I fronted up for my appointment at the Fuzhou Street branch of the Taipei City Hospital (its maternity hospital). There is a rigorous process for screening potential donors. First I had a phone interview where I was asked about potential illnesses I might have, that included places I had visited previously where I might have picked up diseases (e.g. had I visited Africa or lived in the UK and/or been subjected to Mad Cows’ Disease). Then a nurse reiterated these questions during a face to face interview. This was a little difficult as the questions were in Chinese, but with Mr Taiwanxifu’s assistance I worked it out. It helped that I knew I didn’t have any infectious diseases. Hospital staff were very patient and offered several times to provide an interpreter if required. (I later realised the hospital only recently amended its guidelines to allow foreigners to donate breast milk, after it was criticised for refusing milk from a Cambodian woman. It seems the hospital is now very receptive to receiving donations from foreigners.)
After the interview I had a blood test. The hospital will test my blood, and the two liters of milk that I provided, to see if I am eligible to be a donor.
Two liters. There was a time when I would have done anything to produce two liters for my son. Now I had it as excess sitting in my freezer, and still there are more bags of candy-colored milk ice stacked neatly in waiting.
According to Ms Xiao, the nurse who interviewed me, the milk is not processed before being given to children in need. (Some milk banks pasteurize human milk donations.) This explains why they are so fussy with milk donations; if anything is slightly wrong with a batch, they either return it to the person who donated it or destroy it. As the milk goes to sick and needy children, e.g. premature babies, it makes sense that they are so cautious with donated milk. From now on, I must follow even more stringent hygiene standards before pumping breast milk to ensure that there is not the slightest possibility of contamination.
Before signing up for this program, I wondered how I would physically transport my milk to hospital. Would I need to go back on a regular basis? I should have realised that convenient Taipei would have a convenient solution. The hospital will give me regulation plastic storage bags. I will then wander down to my local convenience store to post the frozen milk. The hospital will pay for postage. Too easy!
Storage and use of breast milk is sometimes controversial, such as when a London cafe decided to put breast milk ice-cream on the menu. Why is it that we consider it okay to feed ourselves (and children) milk from nameless cows from an unknown pasture somewhere, yet for many people receiving milk from a human being makes us so uncomfortable? And arguably human milk, which tastes sweeter, has a better taste as well.
Let me share something that until now I have not told many people: for a short while, I fed my premature baby with breast milk kindly donated by a lady I met at an Australian Breastfeeding Association get together. I credit my son’s rapid weight gain during his that period in part to the milk she provided, and I know I will never be able to thank her enough for what she did. At least now I can pay it forward; assuming I am eligible to become a regular donor.