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Mothers’ Milk Bank will help ensure Missoula infants get proper nutrition

Linsey Wiesemann benefited firsthand from the generosity of another nursing mother four years ago, just after her family brought its new addition, baby Abdisa, home from Ethiopia.

At 5 months old, Abdisa weighed just 4 pounds and was severely ill. Wiesemann’s attempts to lactate hadn’t worked, and she needed a way to get him the critical nutrients only breast milk can provide.

“This mom came up to me and said, ‘Take my milk,’ ” said Wiesemann, who after a short medical review and pasteurizing process was able to feed Abdisa the donated milk.

He’s now almost 5 and is thriving.

“I don’t know that I really appreciated her at the time, with all the stress. But that was life changing,” said Wiesemann, a registered nurse.

In an effort to make sure all babies get the breast milk they need, Wiesemann has started Mothers’ Milk Bank of Montana with Nursing Nook owners Jennifer and Scott Stires.

The Nursing Nook was started to support nursing moms and their families. Now, it’s also a place where mothers can help other moms.

The new nonprofit has collected 4,000 ounces of donor milk from mothers in the past three months and is a “milk depot” for its parent bank, Mothers’ Milk Bank of San Jose (Calif.).

“It’s Montana moms feeding Montana babies,” Wiesemann said.

Wiesemann and the Stireses are now raising money to buy equipment so they can pasteurize, test and distribute milk in Missoula.

“It’s a cycle,” Jennifer Stires said. “One mom says, ‘I don’t have enough milk, what do I do?’ The next mom comes in and says, ‘I’ve got a freezer full of milk, what should I do?’ ”

Breast milk is the most nutritious option for babies, and essential for many premature babies who have undeveloped digestive systems and are prone to sickness. Even after pasteurization, the unique antibodies and nutrients of breast milk survive, Wiesemann said.

Breast milk is the No. 1 thing that prevents necrotizing enterocolitis, a gastrointestinal disease that can affect preemies.

“One baby who gets NEC costs a hospital $200,000 more,” Wiesemann said.

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Currently, donor milk is used at five hospitals in Montana and comes from Denver.

“It’s clear that it’s beneficial to have breast milk over formula. It’s no longer a question over whether that might be the truth or not,” said Jacalyn McCoy, a registered nurse and international board-certified lactation consultant at Community Medical Center.

McCoy is helping to set up Community as a milk depot for Mothers’ Milk. Staff will soon start performing outreach to new moms and will have equipment to store the milk before it’s passed on to Mothers’ Milk Bank.

Eventually, McCoy hopes Community can get its donor milk from the bank.

“I have to tell you I think it’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard in a long time,” McCoy said. “I think this milk bank, if they’re able to do it the way they want to, is going to be unique, it’s going to have so much more community feel to it.”

Mothers’ Milk Bank earned nonprofit status at the end of May and has been steadily sending donor milk to its parent bank. If Wiesemann and the Stireses can raise enough money, they hope to have pasteurization equipment and freezers in place to be able to process milk in a year, Wiesemann said.

Mothers in Missoula already have shown they want to help. Wiesemann and Stires have a freezer at Nursing Nook stocked with breast milk awaiting approval and shipment to San Jose.

Being a milk donor is personal, and “moms want to know where their milk is going,” said Jennifer Stires, a registered nurse and certified lactation consultant.

Revenue would come from sales to hospitals. As demand is met in Missoula, the bank could become a resource for states around the region. Mothers’ Milk Bank is a member of the Human Milk Banking Association of North America and follows its processing and distribution guidelines, Wiesemann said.

Mothers interested in donating their extra milk go through a quick screening process and can get milk bags at Mothers’ Milk Bank.

The Stireses and Wiesemann want everyone to know a little donated milk can go a long way – a quart of milk can feed 96 babies for a day.

Wiesemann is especially anxious to pay it forward through Mothers’ Milk Bank.

“More than anything, I love supporting other mothers,” she said.