AUSTIN, Texas — Fort Cavazos opened the military’s first breast milk donation center this month to allow mothers to share their excess milk with patients across the country.
The newly opened Milk Depot operates in partnership with the Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin — a nonprofit that has provided milk to the neonatal intensive care unit at Fort Cavazos for three years. The depot will save donors the hassle of transporting frozen milk to the next closest location about 30 minutes east in Temple.
Officials at Fort Cavazos and the milk bank said this is the first time a military base has opened a facility to collect donated milk.
Grace Wolford, a 23-year-old Army spouse with a 10-month-old son, said the opening of the Milk Depot has allowed her to donate more than 400 ounces of milk.
“I didn’t really always have a lot of time to be able to make the hour drive, and I didn’t have the equipment to be able to transport my milk and keep it frozen,” Wolford said. “Having something that’s only like 10 to 15 minutes away made it 1,000 times easier.”
The milk bank transports the raw milk to its facilities an hour south in Austin and pasteurizes and screens it using standards created by the Human Milk Banking Association of North America, said Kim Updegrove, executive director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin and chairwoman of the association’s standards committee. It’s then distributed to 180 hospitals in 26 states, similar to the way blood banks distribute blood products, she said.
Also, like donating blood, donors must be screened and approved before they can provide milk.
“Fort Cavazos is a line leader. They are beginning what I hope is a precedent,” Updegrove said. “By opening this depot and therefore dipping into this pie of donor human milk, we’re simply helping members of the community to be lifesavers. They’re able to be superheroes and save other people’s children in a safe and helpful way.”
Even before the Milk Depot began accepting donations, donors connected to Fort Cavazos had been making the drive or shipping their milk, providing 9,225 ounces of milk to the bank this year, she said. That nearly meets the 9,777 ounces that the base’s neonatal intensive care unit has ordered for its patients in the hospital and those being monitored at home.
Each year, the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Cavazos admits between 150 and 200 premature babies into its neonatal unit, said Maj. Matthew Nestander, an Army doctor serving as chief of inpatient pediatrics and neonatal unit medical director at Darnall.
More than half of the neonatal patients use donor breast milk, and it is covered by Tricare, the military’s health insurance, he said.
Studies have shown that for babies born below 3 pounds, 4 ounces, breast milk can reduce the risk by 75% of premature babies developing necrotizing enterocolitis, a condition that causes intestinal tissue to die and requires them to undergo surgery, Updegrove said.
“That is the primary source of death in those babies born that small,” she said.
The mothers delivering those premature babies often face their own health challenges or struggle to produce their own breast milk, which is why the donor milk is vital.
Darnall’s neonatal unit can treat babies born as early as 27 weeks into pregnancy but does not have surgical capabilities, Nestander said. A baby who could need surgery must be transferred to a nearby civilian hospital, which increases the stress on new parents who will have to travel farther to see their child.
The milk also saves the hospital money by reducing those complications, he said.
“I think a lot of people are not familiar with [donor milk] and are kind of surprised,” Nestander said of telling parents about the benefits and availability of the donated milk. “It’s well-received information and they’re appreciative.”
Some babies might still benefit from breast milk once they leave the hospital and the milk bank also fills prescriptions for the donated milk from pediatricians, Updegrove said. About two-thirds of the milk provided to the Fort Cavazos community goes directly to patients at home instead of the hospital.
“We know that babies, once stable enough to go home, they do better at home,” Updegrove said. “They’re not exposed to all the other babies in the hospital, and the calmness of the home environment is helpful to them once they’re ready.”
There are 32 milk banks in the U.S. and Canada providing milk, but Updegrove said she wants to expand the group’s reach into the military community — eventually finding a way to get donated breast milk to babies in need at overseas military hospitals.
“We might sequester away our military, we might not see them all the time, but they’re defending our safety all the time. They’re also facing the same burdens that we have in terms of these infants,” she said. “Our military families deserve the same level of care that we provide outside military bases, which is authorized donor human milk to babies in the [neonatal unit] when moms of those babies cannot produce their own milk.”
For Wolford, she said the experience of donating her milk was healing for the postpartum depression that she experienced.
“There were several days when I would look at my son, and I’d be like, ‘I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m doing everything wrong.’ But then I would look at my [breast] pump, and I’d be like, ‘This is the one thing that I 100% know I can do right.’ ”
Mothers interested in donating milk can visit the Mothers’ Milk Bank at Austin website, www.Milkbank.org, or call 512-494-0800 to complete the process to donate. Those interested outside of Fort Cavazos can visit www.hmbana.org to find their nearest human milk bank.