Breast Milk Banks: A Missing System

At the time of writing this, there is currently no breast milk bank in Saskatchewan. There are a number of breast milk drops where pre-screened donors can drop off donations but there are no locally established breast milk banks in the entire province. Currently, parents in need of donated breast milk, or those wishing to donate breast milk must do so through the Regina Qu’Appelle Health Region. Donations are collected at the General Hospital and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit purchases 15-16 bottles a month from Calgary Mothers’ Milk Bank, now known as Northern Star, at a flat fee $16 per bottle to offset certain costs to the breast milk bank, though there is no cost to Regina NICU patients.

While this system works, the issue lies in the process of pasteurization. The Regina Qu’Appelle Health Region does not, at present, have the necessary equipment to pasteurize breast milk at high volumes. As a result, donations are sent to Calgary to be pasteurized and then shipped back to Regina before they are available for those in need. While Calgary might not seem that far away, the resources and money expended in packaging and shipping donations and the time lost in the process can certainly add up. That’s where a local breast milk bank, like the one Eileen hopes to develop, comes in. Aiming to expedite the donation process locally, while also ensuring the safety and quality of the donations they receive, a breast milk bank would help alleviate additional costs to local hospitals while also offering another source of support for families in need.

Eileen believes there are several reasons why Saskatchewan and other parts of Canada do not have breast milk banks in place. But resources and a general lack of awareness throughout our communities are the biggest factors. The pasteurization machine, such as those manufactured by Sterifeed, are highly efficient but are also quite expensive. In addition, fully-trained professional staff is required to operate not just the machine, but the entire donation process, which is regulated by HMBANA (Human Milk Bank Association of North America) and the Guidelines for the Establishment and Operation of a Donor Human Milk Bank they have set in place. The process, which includes screening, blood and health tests, collection, pasteurization, packaging, and shipping, is complex and multi-faceted. As such, significant resources, expertise, and experience are needed to operate a breast milk bank. And the demand for breast milk donations continues to grow.
“Right now, in Saskatchewan, I’m the one who’s standing up and saying, I want to build that system,” says Eileen. “There are many mothers that will have an excess of breast milk while other mothers might not have enough. This can be due to the mother’s health or genetics. And many of those with too much breast milk will simply dump the excess. But we can use that breast milk. Other mothers can use that breast milk. We simply need a system in place, along with the proper awareness and education, to collect, store, and pasteurize donated breast milk so we can help those that might not otherwise have access to it.”

“That’s why I registered Breast Milk Angel Association three years ago. Because I want to help. I understand the difficulty some mothers face and the benefits of natural breast milk are unquestionable. But it’s difficult managing this organization by myself. There is so much that I need to do and so many resources that I need that it can seem like an unwinnable fight at times. But I refuse to give up because this means something to me. It’s the right thing to do. But I do need help and I do need support. So that’s what I’m hoping for.”

Support, however, has not been easy to come by. Eileen seems to be fighting a one-woman battle. She has reached out to every available media outlet from CBC and CTV to the Leader Post and Access Communications. So far, only Lisa Peters, host of Talk of The Town on Access Communications, has stepped forward to help spread Eileen’s message.

“It’s been a struggle to grab the media’s attention,” Eileen admits. “I have contacted CBC and CTV to broadcast our organization and myself, but they have refused. I’ve called and emailed and personally went to CBC to invite them to our Appreciation Diner in hopes that a local journalist would attend and hopefully write a piece about it, but they are not interested.”
Their disinterest, Eileen believes, stems from uncertainty.

“They are uncertain that what I’m trying to do will have any impact or will continue beyond what it already is. There is also the uncertainty that my message is worth listening to. The Saskatchewan Health Authority says that I’m the only one advocating for a breast milk bank and that I am restricted by resources and so they don’t know how far I can go. And that uncertainty seems to be holding them back from making any moves to get involved.”

But it’s not just uncertainty that’s causing issues. And it’s not just the media that’s missing out on the important work that Eileen is doing. The public, for the most part, is woefully unaware not just of the growing need for a Regina based breast milk bank but that breast milk banks even exist in the first place.

“I know a lot of mothers in good health that are dumping their breast milk. They have no idea that they could donate that breast milk. They also don’t know that a breast milk bank could facilitate the process for them. And right there we have a supply that’s being wasted because they just don’t know. They haven’t been educated that way. That’s why we need the media and the people behind us to get the word out, to say that this is the right thing, this is a good thing so that others can see and hear from those in need about how important a breast milk bank would be. If we can get a thousand people to sign one of our banners, saying I support this program then the media, and hopefully the government is going to have to take notice and pay attention to us.”