Bereaved mothers find solace, purpose in donating their breast milk
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Not every pregnant woman who gives birth in a hospital comes home with a baby.
Six out of every 10,000 women who deliver a child in the United States have their newborn die during childbirth or shortly afterward.
One of them was Kate Weidner, 35, of Oak Park.
“My husband works in architecture. We have a 3-year-old son, Gus,” Weidner said. “We got pregnant with our second son. He was due in October of 2017. I was diagnosed with a really, really rare condition, vasa praevia. The baby’s umbilical cord didn’t attach, and some of the veins and arteries are left vulnerable. If I went into labor, he would die instantly.”
The plan was to have a C-section at 34 weeks, to give the baby as much time to develop as possible but still two weeks before labor, with its fatal complications, was to begin.
That almost worked.
“At 33 weeks, two days, I started gushing blood — a hemorrhage,” Weidner said. “I knew right away what was happening.”
An ambulance rushed Weidner to West Suburban Medical Center. She had a crash C-section, but the baby, whom they named Everett, was in very bad shape.
“None of his functions were functioning,” she said. “His heart wasn’t circulating blood.”
Her husband, Noel, in California on business, got back to town just in time for them to be together, briefly.
“We were able to be with him and hold him,” she said. “We started the process of being a family. My first son was so easy … this was the absolutely worst thing that could happen.”
The next day, Everett Weidner died.
A new mother’s body doesn’t know her baby is dead. Since the 18th week of pregnancy, her system has been getting ready to feed her new child. After birth, progesterone levels drop, triggering the production of milk.
“I breastfed my first son and loved the experience,” Weidner said. “I had intended to breastfeed my second son …”
Her milk was here, but her baby was not. A counselor at the hospital instructed her in techniques to dry up her milk.
“It’s funny,” Weidner said. “No one told me about milk donation. I don’t know how I knew about it. I learned when I was planning the C-section; I knew donor milk was an option but didn’t know who donated it, never suspected I would become one who would be a milk donor.”
Two dozen mothers’ milk banks are scattered around the country. The majority of milk collected goes to premature infants in hospital intensive care units; most of their donors are women who have expressed more milk than their babies need, though some are in Kate Weidner’s terrible situation.
“Ten percent of our donors are bereavement donors — women who have lost their babies,” said Summer Kelly, RN, executive director of the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes. “It really helps with the grieving process.”
Nursing releases Prolactin, a hormone that can lesson symptoms of depression. Nursing also gives grieving mothers something to do.
“You’re so adrift,” Weidner said. “You’re just looking for a life preserver.”
Mothers who donate milk usually freeze it and ship it to milk banks in special containers, or go to collection sites; the Mothers’ Milk Bank of the Western Great Lakes has 30 locations in Illinois and Wisconsin.
Awareness of milk donation is growing. Amanda Horner was informed of the practice in 2015 at Akron Children’s Hospital, where her son Milo was fighting his losing battle to survive a diaphragmatic hernia, a severe malformation affecting his heart and lungs.
“They have a lactation consultant on staff,” Horner said. “She met with me … she said, ‘I’m only going to ask you this one time. There is a possibility things won’t work out; since you have pumped before, and you know the importance of breast milk, would you be at all interested in donation?'”
Horner ended up donating for 11 months.
“If you can give it, why not do it?” she said. “We said he would change the world … and since he’s gone we have to do it for him. The easiest way at beginning to do that is through breast milk donation.”
Horner would wear her baby’s receiving blanket as a scarf while pumping milk. She wrote letters to Milo and included them in shipments. Some criticized her.
“Lots of people said you should stop sooner, you’re hurting yourself,” Horner said. “If it gave me that connection with my baby, it’s helped me. Grief and loss is such a personal experience. I have the right to grieve in my own way and to grieve as long as I need to. Just because I’m keeping that connection with my child a little bit longer, doesn’t mean I’m not moving on with my life.”
Still, not every mother who loses a child can or should donate.
“It’s not appropriate for all bereaved moms,” said Ann Marie Lindquist, of Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast in Boston. “It’s a very personal preference. Some moms deal with their grief in other ways. Some moms just don’t know. Other moms aren’t able to or have taken certain medications.”
“There’s nothing wrong with feeling, I just can’t,‘” Weidner said. “For some women, it’s too painful. I don’t believe it is for everyone and would never judge a decision a mom has made.”
Milk banks are also a community for grieving mothers.
“You feel so alone when this happens to you, completely alone,” Weidner said. “Their donor intake coordinator, Susan, she made me feel so normal, what I was going through had meaning. There were other women out there going through the same thing. I made an appointment to drop off my milk. There is a milk depot two blocks from my house; I could have gone there. But I wanted to go, to see it and make a gesture. Susan met me at the door, hugged me, thanked me so much.”
Milk banks honor the children of bereaved donors. In Denver, they have a metal tree with gold aspen leaves. In Boston, it’s a quilt. The Elk Grove Village bank uses stars.
“They had a memorial event where they unveiled this beautiful wall, where they have a star hand-painted for all the babies whose milk has been donated,” Weidner said. “We showed up at the event, my husband and me and my son.”
She was introduced as “Everett’s mom.”
“When you have a child, you take it for granted,” she said. “Everyone calls you ‘Gus’s mom.’ It’s part of your identity. At the milk bank, we’re known as ‘Everett’s family,’ and that’s something so special and not true anywhere else.”
Now Weidner is pregnant again, and she credits donating her milk as being an important part of her ability to process her loss and continue on with life.
“Donation was a really a part of my psychological healing after my loss,” she said.
“What matters most to a mother is the legacy of her child. You just get this sense: I want people to know he was here and his life is important and it matters, and milk donation gave me that, and that is the greatest thing I could give to myself and to my son and to my husband. Just knowing because Everett was here, because he existed, so did this milk. It can make things better for other people, can prevent a family from experiencing the grief we were going through. [It] was a wonderful, healing thing for me to do.”