PIYALI (not her real name) was barely a week old, she was brought to Bombay’s Lokmanya Tilak Hospital or the Sion Hospital as it is better known. The two persons who brought her claimed to be her relatives. The moment the opportunity came. Piyali’s so-called relatives disappeared. Hovering between life and death. Piyali, who had contracted tetanus, was in desperate need of mother’s milk. A young doctor, who worked with the hospital’s Human Milk Bank and Research Centre (HMRC), did not hesitate a second when she came to know of Piyali’s plight and fed her two months.
“She had very little chance of surviving. I still cannot forget the young doctor who reacted the way only a women can. There are scores of lives that this milk bank has saved,” said Dr Armide Fernandes, head of the Pediatrics Department.
Dr Fernandas is the brain the HMRC. India’s only human milk bank. “When I joined the Sion hospital, I saw that often high-risk babies or premature babies were so feeble or sick that they were unable to feed from their mother’s breast. There were also many sick mothers who too had problems feeding the babies. But getting fresh and healthy milk was a constant problem,” Dr Fernandas said.
But with the setting up of the human milk bank the problem has eased with the bank storing milk from healthy mothers on a day-to-day basis and making it available to sick, feeble and abandoned babies every day. Initially, Dr Ferandas had to run around constantly to get the project going.
Eventually with the help of UNICEF and the Taj group, the HMRC started functioning at the Sion hospital from November 27, 1989. “It has been scientifically proved that mother’s milk is a must for having a healthy baby. Breastfed children are less prone to diseases than children fed on powder and animal milk,” Dr Fernandas reiterated the well-known fact.
Contribution to this milk bank comes from lactating mothers admitted to the Sion hospital. Generally, mothers produce more milk for two to three days after the birth of a child. During this period, the milk is collected from her through a pump and is stored in a steel container. The date for collection and the quantity are marked on the container, which is later kept in a “shaker” at a temperature of 58 degrees for half-an-hour for pasteurization. Then a small amount of the milk is sent to the laboratory for culture, while the rest is stored in a deep freezer.
The milk is discarded or utilized depending upon the culture report. Milk kept in the freezer can be preserved for upto three months. A point to note that there has never been a problem with either collection or donation. Ms Sharmila Mane, a technician with the HMRC, said: “Mothers in the maternity ward often donate milk. It is a matter of pride for every mother that she is able to save somebody’s baby. It is a female bonding of sorts.”
Indeed, this milk bank has fed 10,070 babies in 1993 and 943 babies in 1994. On an average three to four litres of milk is collected and two to three liters fed to babies every day.
What is surprising, however, is the milk bank system in Bombay has not been followed anywhere else in India.
In its own way, the milk bank has also become a striking example of unity. “We do not consider caste, creed or religion of the donors or the receivers. Until now, not one single mother has asked the religion and caste to which the donor mother belonged. For that matter, no donor has asked about the religion of the receiver,” Dr Fernandas said.
By Ketan Tanna