Mission Milk-Possible: The making of a breast milk drive in a pandemic
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
How one community helped a hungry baby after mother’s COVID-19 hospitalization
By Gemma MacFarlane, Nicole Bautista, Gillian Coull, and Nissa Cornish
When Catherine Kosasih was diagnosed with the new coronavirus, a chest scan showed white spots on her lungs. Doctors put her in isolation and on a course of antiretrovirals – traditionally used for treating HIV. Separated from her husband and two young children, who were told to quarantine, she suffered a further blow when medical staff told her she could not see, nurse or even pump milk for her four-month-old baby. Then they found out the little one was allergic to formula.
She turned to Hong Kong’s close-knit breastfeeding community for help, and what happened next will bring you to tears.
Gemma MacFarlane, Teacher, Founder Hong Kong Breastfeeding – Women Only
Catherine sent a message from hospital asking about the HIV medication’s impact on her milk. I contacted her to see if she had enough milk for her little baby.
The initial plan had been to formula supplement once her own supply of frozen milk had run out, but then the baby had such a bad reaction that I knew we had to ask for donations.
It became a necessity.
Catherine just needed to focus on getting well. It’s bad enough that she was separated from her baby but that she had to dump her liquid gold was horrible and then to top it off her baby had a terrible reaction to artificial breastmilk substitutes.
You’d be heartless not to care.
I posted details of her SOS on the Facebook group, hoping that people would be able to help.
“Mother, COVID-19 positive, hospitalised and on antiretrovirals, father left with two infants — aged 21 months and 4 months — in quarantine. Baby allergic to formula. Breastmilk donations needed.”
Offers came pouring in from around Hong Kong and I realised we needed to put a plan in place to get the milk from all these places to the dad, who was looking after two young babies in difficult conditions.
To help is the minimum we should do.
The way so many parents came together to do this shows the proverbial village is still desired and necessary.
I know there are people that view breast milk donation as strange, but I would argue that it could also be viewed as strange that we drink breast milk from cows, goats, donkeys, and camels.
As a science specialist I can tell you that mammals make milk that is perfect for their own species: The milk made by a cow is perfect for its calf. Human milk is perfect for humans.
Generally I think breastfeeding needs to be encouraged, especially natural term breastfeeding. The benefits are too large not to try. So if you are going to substitute breastmilk for anything it should be human milk before artificial breastmilk substitutes.
Nicole Bautista, kindergarten teacher, mama to Carter, 18 months
I decided to donate milk because I wanted to help as much as I could. I felt that if I were in the same situation, I wouldn’t know where to begin! I don’t personally know a lot of friends who are still breastfeeding so it would be challenging to find a support group who could immediately donate milk.
During these dark times, we must show compassion and empathy.
I would have been extremely upset knowing that my baby is allergic to formula and that my milk supply has run out.
Many mothers all over Hong Kong, regardless of culture, nationality and background, came together to help produce sustenance for a wee baby they didn’t know.
Women need to help each other. Especially now.
I am moved by the outpouring of love and care from so many women who have never met each other.
It really does take a village to raise a child.
Gillian Coull, Teacher, Moderator, Hong Kong Breastfeeding – Women Only
I offered to collate details of potential donors and find a way to collect the milk . The offers just flooded in. It was genuinely humbling how ready and willing mums were to share their precious stash with a total stranger.
I asked my partner David if he could help deliver the milk to Lantau – the island where the family lived – and he immediately agreed. We talked about how reliant we would be on the generosity of others if we found ourselves in that situation and so it was very easy to get it started.
On the day, we planned a route that maximised milk volume and minimised time on the road, as it had to get all the way to South Lantau still frozen. Dave used Google Live Location which was shared in the WhatsApp group so that mums could see when he was getting close.
He carried a large sports bag on his back which was packed full by the end.
We collected close to 15 litres of breast milk in the end.
Just for fun, I asked the mums to share a selfie with him as he zoomed around the city on his motorbike. It was pretty dramatic tracking his route with the location tracker and watching the selfies come in!
I liaised with Nissa Cornish, who lives on Lantau, and had volunteered to bring the milk to the family. It was important to me to add my tiny donation of 500ml as a token gesture, but some mums contributed upwards of two or three litres each.
It was incredible to witness.
One of the reasons this spoke to me was that we had a COVID-19 false alarm just a week earlier. David started to have cold symptoms, and then developed a fever. He hadn’t traveled or to our knowledge had close contact with any confirmed case, but naturally we were worried.
Having three kids, including a 5.5 month old, one of my main anxieties was separation from any of them but most especially the baby who is exclusively breastfed.
I respect HK’s comprehensive approach to virus containment but as we have no family living in Hong Kong I was fearful about what would happen to our children if one or both of us was hospitalised or quarantined. I think it’s a worry many parents here have.
Shortly afterwards I heard about Catherine and Juergen’s situation. When I saw pictures of the poor baby after drinking formula, not only separated from her mama but suffering from a terrible reaction too, I desperately wanted to help but had very little frozen milk of my own to spare.
I found helping with the milk drive hugely rewarding.
I could easily imagine being in a situation with young children where there was literally nowhere to turn – when your family is overseas and your usual support system might be inaccessible, for various virus related reasons.
I also felt that in taking action as part of a community, I was able to put to rest some of my own fears that had arisen when our family felt threatened by this virus.
Knowing that people would ensure my baby was fed was reassuring, even if that meant taking her and feeding her directly — since this donation run I now have an arrangement with Heather Lin that she will do this if donor milk isn’t accessible.
I think this is really the root of the community’s amazing response to Catherine and Juergen’s call for help — it’s a relief for us all to know that other mamas have our backs.
Nissa Cornish, Executive Director Redress, Moderator, Hong Kong Breastfeeding – Women Only
Since the birth of my son 2 years ago, I have been moved many times by the ’sisterhood’ of becoming a mother.
There was no question of whether or not to help. I welcomed the chance to pay forward the kindnesses and support I have received on my breastfeeding (and parenting) journey.
There were two rounds of donation.
The local mums here in Lantau rallied for the first delivery of around five litres and then the second round of ten litres came from Gillian’s incredible effort in the city.
The baby needed about one litre a day and mum was slated to be in hospital for another week from the first delivery. Plus, her supply was dropping steadily while she was away pumping rather than breastfeeding, so we realised she would likely need to supplement a little bit during the first couple of days back.
We tried to get all the milk we could.
I handled one drop off, Yolanda Jacoby did the other. It was very smooth, though due to his quarantine, I wasn’t able to interact in person with Juergen closely. I dropped off the milk by their home and once I was a safe distance away, he came to collect and waved from the doorstep.
But as we drove away, I received a text message that he was in tears.
It made me feel that there is little in this world more powerful than a group of mamas who decide they want to get something done together for another mama.
Donating milk is one of the most beautiful gifts you can give to a baby and its family. I have been on the receiving end myself, and cried tears of gratitude.
There are so many reasons for donating — whether illness, medication, difficulty feeding or producing milk, separation from the baby… and there are women producing more milk than they need.
Why wouldn’t anyone want to close this simple gap?
It’s a bond between mothers, the ability to feed our babies what they are meant to have.
For thousands of years women have been nursing babies — their own and others — because that’s literally what our bodies are meant to do.