MERRILLVILLE — Northwest Indiana's first-ever breast milk donation drive collected about 1,400 ounces of the so-called liquid gold here this week.
The event was held Tuesday at Methodist Hospitals Southlake Campus and brought in donations for The Milk Bank, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that gathers and pasteurizes breast milk that feeds premature infants across the Midwest.
"We use breast milk in our (neonatal intensive care unit) to bridge the gap for babies who are preterm or sick," said Kim Sausman, a lactation consultant for Methodist Hospitals Northlake Campus in Gary. "It helps shorten the length of stay, keep them healthy."
Babies in NICUs are often separated from their moms, who generally have a difficult time pumping breast milk in the early going, Sausman noted. "Mom could be sick, or the baby's not latching," she said. The milk is often given to babies who are jaundiced or have low blood sugar.
The roughly 1,400 ounces came from three donors Tuesday, with one of them alone accounting for nearly 900 of it. The woman had to undergo medical screenings and blood testing. The best candidates are women who are in generally good health, don't smoke and aren't on a lot of prescription medications or supplements.
"I've had friends and family that had babies that needed donor milk just in the last couple years," said Tarin Tsirtsis, a 33-year-old Munster mom who made Tuesday's largest donation. "Since I had an oversupply, I wanted to donate as well."
Tsirtsis, a medical sales rep, drank milk after her son, Marino, was born five months ago before realizing he was intolerant to it. So she had no use for that breast milk she pumped early on. Then people told her they read an article in The Times announcing Tuesday's drive.
"I figured I might as well give this to another baby that needs it," she said.
Most of the hospitals in Northwest Indiana have begun using breast milk in their NICUs, said Sarah Long, director of clinical operations for The Milk Bank, which has done four other donor drives in Indiana.
"The mother may not have enough of her own milk," she said. "Donor milk from The Milk Bank is the next best option to hopefully get (infants) out of the NICU sooner."
The hospitals previously used formula, which puts babies at higher risk for necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC, an inflammation of the intestinal walls, Long said.
"That can lead to lack of oxygen or blood flow," said Christina Lopez, a neonatal clinical nurse specialist with Methodist Hospitals. "That greatly impacts neonatal development."
At Gary Methodist, the milk is given to babies who are younger than 32 weeks and weigh less than 1,800 grams, or about 3.7 pounds. Since starting the program a month and a half ago, the hospital has fed donor breast milk to three infants. The campus is also a milk depot site, where women can drop off leftover, frozen breast milk.
Valerie Soy, an Indiana University Northwest nursing student who helped open the Gary milk depot as part of a class project, noted that women who had stillbirths or miscarriages can donate breast milk. "It's still a hard time for them, but because they're able to donate, it could become therapy for them," she said.
The milk is more expensive than formula but saves money in the long run by keeping babies healthier and out of the NICU, Lopez noted.
"The most important piece of this is we're trying to increase breastfeeding, however that looks," Sausman said.