The typical box of spaghetti weighs 1 pound. Mateo weighed just 3 ounces more.

Born almost four months before his due date, tiny Mateo was a fraction of the 7-pound weight of an average newborn. He struggled with breathing, moving and living. His digestive system rejected formula after formula, and his mother, barely halfway through her pregnancy, was not ready to produce breast milk.

While watching her infant fight for his life in a neonatal intensive care unit in Spokane, Taryn Aguiar made a decision: She would apply for donated breast milk for Mateo.

“Initially, I was pretty emotional because I wanted to provide for him, but I just was not producing enough,” says Aguiar, of Walla Walla. “The situation was so intense, we wanted anything that would help.”

Mateo qualified, and soon bottles of breast milk arrived, each one labeled like a prescription and formulated for his protein requirements. He could stomach it, and the milk began to fill his needs, preventing a dangerous surgery for the tiny baby.

Mateo received the donated milk for three months; the now-toddler currently is healthy and eating well at home.

Making sure infants like Mateo have the best chance to thrive inspired staff at Providence St. Mary Medical Center to join the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank.

Christine Wittlake, registered nurse and lactation consultant for Providence St. Mary, said the program can directly save lives: Breast milk reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome by 50 percent and serves as a medicine for premature babies, reducing the rate of infections and intestinal issues.

“When infants come prematurely — like Mateo did — they do significantly better on breast milk,” Wittlake said. “Unfortunately, when babies come too early, their mothers may not be producing milk.”

Filling the gap was the primary focus of those behind the Northwest Mothers Milk Bank, according to the agency’s Clinical Director Joanne Ransom, RN, IBCLC. Based in Portland, the NWMMB opened in July 2013. Before this, the closest milk bank to Walla Walla was in San Jose, Calif.

“Right now we are serving about 50 hospitals in Oregon and Washington with pasteurized milk, and that is increasing every week. We also reach hospitals in Alaska,” Ransom says, adding the organization distributed 184,000 ounces of milk in 2015.

The NWMMB takes in colostrum — a pre-milk produced immediately after birth, rich in antibodies — as well as breast milk.

In addition to newborns in the hospital, the bank provides breast milk for some infants after they are released. Mateo, for example, received milk for three months before other micro-premies took precedence. The amount of milk and length of the treatment an infant receives depend on medical need and quantity of donations.

To join the donation network, mothers are carefully screened through an interview and health-history questionnaire. Donors must also pass a blood screening and have approval from their medical providers that they are healthy enough to donate.

Once a donor is accepted, she delivers frozen milk to a collection center, such as Providence St. Mary. The milk is kept in a dedicated freezer and shipped to Portland, where it is gently pasteurized and normalized. The milk is then distributed to needy infants through a prescription.

“For a potential donor, it’s an opportunity for them to meet that need for medically fragile babies who, at a time when they need it most, their mothers aren’t able to provide all that they need,” Ransom says. “Nobody profits from this except the families who receive this very generous gift. This is only possible because of the generosity of mothers.”

Through hospital funding and a grant from the Blue Mountain Community Foundation, Providence St. Mary joined the NWMMB in June 2015. Mothers have traveled to Walla Walla from as far as La Grande, Ore., to donate.

For some mothers, the donation is a way to put extra milk to good use while their own children thrive. For others, the donation helps soothe some of the pain of losing an infant.

Since joining the program, Providence St. Mary has collected more than 2,000 ounces of milk, which is distributed to newborns around the Pacific Northwest, including children like Mateo. 

Today, Mateo is going strong, thanks to the NWMMB.

“It’s really hard to go through what he’s come through,” Aguiar said. “He’s healthy and that’s really all that matters.”

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