I threw away a couple gallons of frozen breast milk yesterday.
Before any lactating mamas shout, “Horrors!” let me tell you it was dated from July 9 through July 21, 2009. It’s been passed its prime for well over a year and a half, but no one in my home had the guts to trash the stuff.
That’s because the time stamps on every plastic bag or bottle read something like this: 2 a.m., 4 a.m., 6 a.m., and so on. The product represents heroic effort to get my son – who was born with an impenetrable lump for a duodenum (that is, the beginning of the small intestine) and on life support from birth – to drink his mother’s milk from the tap and to prevent the likely spiral that would have ended up with his being fed via G-tube, which too many of his peers have protruding from their bellies.
From the moment Raphael came and was whisked away from me, I started demanding to pump and store his milk.
It was the only thing I could do for him.
I finally got to pump when Greg and I arrived at The Children’s Hospital soon after Raphael’s flight-for-life heroes landed on the roof and brought him into neonatal intensive care. We got there as a neonatologist tried, yet again, to insert a central line through our newborn’s umbilicus.
We had no idea what was wrong with our baby.
Before a couple of soft-spoken medical staff could pull us aside and fill us in on what was going on, I began asking when I could nurse my boy, to which I received curious looks and sympathetic non-answers. If I passed those two hospital employees on the street today, I doubt I’d know them. It was all happening in a blurry sort of timeless way, and I was a crazy lady about breastfeeding because I knew my first son was the healthy eater, speaker, and grower he is today in part because of the fine imprinting that nursing within seconds of his new life – before the cord was even cut – gave him. Ensuring successful breastfeeding was half the reason I endured natural childbirth.
I was also in an otherworldly place because I had just delivered a baby, of course. That, and our world was suddenly upside down and inside out.
Since I couldn’t feed, or even touch my child for that matter, I impatiently requested a breast pump. I don’t know how many times I repeated myself. After what seemed an eternity, although it was quite possibly within an hour, the hospital staff brought me a yellow machine on wheels, which I dragged around and become too familiar with. I gave the pump a fancy name I no longer remember. Something Japanese sounding.
That first night (morning really), I shivered beneath a warmed blanket, my blood pressure plummeting, as I expressed my baby’s breast milk amid the swarm working on him. He lay eerily still under the lights of his warming bed. The breast pump’s throbbing pulse offered no reassurance.
I recall the warmth and the smallest bit of veiled pity the woman who took my pumped milk from me showed me. She gamely grabbed a tiny syringe and tried to capture the single thick drop of yellow colostrum I produced that clung to the neck of the breast shield. There wasn’t even enough to drip into the bottle. Then she quietly handed me the syringe so I could have a go, and through heavy, desperate tears, I managed to suck up that precious drop and beg the lady to rush it to the milk lab for storage. She smiled as she took it.
I’ve wondered whatever became of it.
For days, every few hours (I even set an alarm for the middle of the night), I bottled my expressed milk and waited. Bottled and waited.
On Raphael’s 23rd day, a week after his first successful nasogastric-tube feeding following intestinal surgery and a lifetime’s worth of interventions, my new son and I first tried breastfeeding.
For the next two and a half weeks, I forbid the nurses to offer a bottle or run Raphael’s tube feeds without me first trying to nurse him if I could be there. Sleep was irrelevant for me.
The dictum on the NICU floor is “feed and grow.” Staff members rightly enforce all means to get nutrition into their newborns, and they don’t like moms getting in their way.
But I knew that taking the easier route was a slippery slope. I also knew that Raphael’s low muscle tone, uncoordinated mouth, rough start, and high risk for infection and cognitive delay meant that breastfeeding was even more important to him than it was to his brother. It was also much harder, but I refused to believe it was too late for him to learn.
Raphael deserved a true mother’s effort.
I had to enroll accomplices. In return for the nurses’ tepid support, I agreed to be at the hospital almost around the clock and be ready to go through the emotionally charged, wearisome motions of weighing my infant in—attempting latching—weighing him out at all hours. I had to work closely with the lactation staff so it wouldn’t defrost too much and potentially waste milk. I had to monitor Raphael’s intake and vitals and counter certain doctors’ recommendations. I had to juggle the inorganic tangle of tubes and wires that covered my boy’s tiny body without wearing him out yet relax enough to coax a milk let down.
The lactation supervisor informed me that she was storing upwards of 10,000 millimeters of my milk, more than for any other child. But for the sake of keeping up supply when demand was so infinitesimal, I kept pumping.
I sought help and pushed past everyone and every thing (like friends who failed to show for babysitting our two-year-old) that got in the way. Greg was immensely supportive even though he didn’t get what I knew deep down: that if I hadn’t done what I did, things would be very different (not in a good way) for Raphael, and for our family, today.
On the first full day with both our children at home, and with the stress and lights and noise of the hospital behind us, Raphael took all his feeds the way God intended.
We only had to resort to nasogastric feedings a few frantic times after that, and we pulled the feeding tube a month later.
So last night, every time I stepped on the trash can lever to toss in a kitchen scrap, I saw that pile of old, melting milk, and I shuddered a little.