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Brianna Evans and her baby, Taggert, both almost died when her placenta grew into other organs, causing severe hemorrhaging that forced delivery and surgery more than two months before Taggert was due.
The mother of six says she knew two things as she lay in intensive care at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in March 2013: Her baby needed human milk for the best chance at survival, and she couldn't yet provide it.
Taggert instead was given tiny amounts of milk from a donor via a nasal-gastric tube, a practice that's increasingly common as Utah hospitals' neonatal intensive-care units adopt a preference for human milk, and as lactating women take advantage of a growing number of donation centers.
"When you have this tiny, tiny baby at such a critical state where they might not survive ... I was so, so grateful for those mothers somewhere out there who donated milk that was helping my son," Evans said Tuesday.
Evans, so weak she couldn't lift her arms, had lactation consultants begin pumping her breasts to stimulate milk for the day when she could nurse her son.
Taggert finally left the hospital at 3 months old, but by then Evans was so accustomed to pumping seven or eight times a day that she just kept at it, producing more than her son could eat.
"I stored it all and determined that as soon as I was able, I would donate all my milk," Evans said.
She and her husband, Zane Evans, bought a chest freezer and filled it with baggies of milk, and just after Taggert's first birthday, they carried 13 grocery bags full about 1,800 ounces of milk to the Mother's Milk Depot at the Utah County Health Department in Provo.
Stories like Evans' encourage advocates who are working toward the day when all babies will get human milk, especially the premature ones whose survival could depend on the right nutrients.
Seven new donation centers have opened this year in Utah, the latest at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray and at Mountain View Hospital in Payson last week. Utah now has 11, and the number continues to grow, with Riverton Hospital and Birthing Your Way in Lehi planning to take donations next.
"It's such a priceless commodity," said Lori Eining, director of women's services at Intermountain Medical Center. "It's what we call liquid gold, honestly."
Donated human milk is the next best thing to one's own mother's milk, she said.
Premature babies often have digestive systems that are not working correctly, and "it's so much easier for the babies to break down the components of breast milk than formula," she said.
While normal, healthy babies can thrive on formula, "You can't get any better than the nutrients in breast milk," Eining said.
The 10 hospitals and clinics that take donations in Utah all freeze and send their milk to the nonprofit Mothers' Milk Bank in Denver, where it is screened for viruses and bacteria and pasteurized, which is a gentle heating that ensures safety but does not destroy nutrients.
Last year, 239 Utah women donated 76,511 ounces of milk. Of that, 26,702 ounces came back to Utah for use in newborn intensive-care units, said Laraine Lockhart Borman, outreach director for Mothers' Milk Bank.
The bank sends milk to 26 states.
One advantage of hosting a donation center, Eining said, is that Intermountain Medical Center will now have a higher priority to get the milk it needs for infants in its intensive care unit.
There often is a shortage of human milk, she said. At times, IMC has had to use formula when there was no human milk available.
Utah's donation network is growing to the point that Utah will soon have its own bank, the Mountain West Mothers' Milk Bank, which will do its own screening tests and pasteurization, said Miriam Bastian, a neo-natal nurse practitioner at IMC who is on the task force planning to open the Utah milk bank next year.
"If we can bring a local milk bank here, we can lower the costs and increase the donations and get it out to those fragile babies who use it," she said.
While it's not expensive for a hospital or clinic to take donations, there are shipping costs involved in sending the milk to Colorado and back.
"What we would like to see is all our neo-natal intensive care units using human milk and then being able to provide milk to low income families, providing it at low-cost or no-cost," Bastian said.
Utah donation centers:
Salt Lake Mothers' Milk Donation Center, Westridge Health Center, 3730 W, 4700 South, West Valley City
Intermountain Medical Center, 5121 S. Cottonwood St., Murray
IHC Salt Lake Clinic, 389 South 900 East, Salt Lake City
IHC Sandy Clinic, 9450 S. 1300 East, Suite 210, Sandy
Kaysville Creekside Clinic, 435 N. Main St., Kaysville
IHC Layton Clinic, 2075 University Park Blvd., Layton
Utah County Mother's Milk Depot, Utah Valley Health Department, 151 S. University Ave., Suite 1610, Provo
Timpanogos Regional Hospital, 750 W. 800 North, Orem
Mountain View Hospital, 1000 E. 100 North, Payson
Park City Medical Center, 900 Round Valley Drive, Park City
Dixie Regional Milk Depot, Dixie Regional Medical Center, 544 S. 400 East, St. George