No one wants to spend Christmas in the hospital. But for a Coon Rapids mother and her infant son it's a blessing. The child was dying of liver failure until a transplant a few weeks ago saved him.
Angie Koos is now able to do what most moms take for granted - she can give her son Collin a bottle of breast milk. It's a substance his new liver can finally process.
Getting to this point was no easy task. To keep her milk supply going, Angie Koos has been using a breast pump five or six times a day for the past seven months since Collin's birth.
"It was really hard. I wanted to give up many, many, many times," Angie Koos said.
But she stuck with it knowing that her breast milk could protect her son from life-threatening infections after his transplant. Children who receive donor organs are more susceptible to illnesses because their immune systems have been weakened by the anti-rejection drugs that they take.
"At this point he's on quite a bit of anti-rejection medication, so any little illness can tip him over the edge," she said.
Breast milk is the perfect medicine for transplant babies because it's loaded with antibodies passed on from their mothers, said Dr. Srinath Chinnakotla, a Clinical Director of Pediatric Transplantation at the University of Minnesota and Collin's transplant surgeon.
"These antibodies will prevent bacterial infections and viral infections that these transplant children are very prone to," Chinnakotla said. "And they will also provide him all the nutrients he needs to grow. The breast milk is the best thing you could give your infant child."
BUSY TIME OF YEAR FOR MILK BANKS
Now that little Collin is well enough to begin drinking his mother's breast milk, Angie Koos can finally dip in to the stash of milk that she has been saving.
But she quickly realized that Collin could never consume all of it before it expired. So she offered to donate three gallons of it to her hospital's milk bank.
"And I could have had more, but I don't have the freezer space," Angie Koos said. "But that was just a starting point I guess."
As any nursing mother will tell you, three gallons is a lot of breast milk. But it's not the largest donation that Lora Harding-Dundek, manager of Birth and Family Education and Family Support Services for Fairview Health Services, has seen during her tenure at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital Milk Bank.
"I write thank you cards all the time to moms who are finished donating and you know eight, nine, 10 gallons is not at all unusual," Harding-Dundek said.
Those higher amounts often involve donations from moms over the course of several births.
While donations come in year round at the milk bank, Harding-Dundek said November and December are the busiest months.
"We always know that we're going to get a lot of calls right around the holidays because suddenly women are having trouble finding room in their freezers for the hamburger you know, for the turkey," she said.
MOST WOULD-BE DONORS REJECTED
The Amplatz milk bank doesn't redistribute the milk they collect locally. Instead, the bank operates as more of a depot. All the milk it collects is sent to a California company that converts it to human milk fortifiers for sick and pre-term infants.
Only about one in four women who apply to donate their milk are accepted because the qualification process is so strict. Harding-Dundek said moms must be screened for diseases and medication usage and they can't consume some foods or beverages.
"They even are quite stringent about whether or not you can be routinely be drinking herbal teas, just because we don't know. There isn't research that says that those are safe," Harding-Dundek said.
The milk bank also requires a permission slip from the mother's physician stating that she's healthy enough to donate. The baby's physician must also sign a form saying that the mom's donation won't affect her ability to continue breast feeding her own baby.
Despite all of these potential barriers to donation, the Amplatz milk bank has found enough moms in Minnesota willing and able to donate their breast milk. Harding-Dundek said she's not surprised because breast feeding is very popular here. Around 90 percent of the mothers in the newborn-intensive care unit of her hospital breast feed their infants.
"We have a very high rate, but that isn't the case in a lot of parts of the country," Harding-Dundek said. "And so for those babies that aren't being breast fed, either because their moms can't or choose not to, this is a great gift."
Angie Koos said she's grateful to have found a way to acknowledge the life-saving liver donation that her son received, by passing on a life-sustaining gift of her own.