As Thuy stepped into the nurse’s office where I was conducting interviews, she smiled radiantly, masking the challenges she was experiencing as a new mother.
Thuy is 30 years old and a first-time mother. Her twins – a boy and a girl – were born prematurely, 8 weeks early. Hospital officials estimate that of the 3,000 – 4,000 premature and/or low-birth weight children cared for each year at the Da Nang Hospital for Women and Children (including those transferred after birth from nearby hospitals), as many as 30% do not have access to their own mother’s milk during the first few days of life. Reasons for this include the mother being too sick to breastfeed or taking medication that is not recommended while breastfeeding. Global research shows that these vulnerable children would benefit immensely from consuming human milk immediately after delivery, and exclusively for the first 6 months of life. That’s where donated human milk becomes essential.
In February 2017, Viet Nam’s first human milk bank was launched at the Da Nang Hospital for Women and Children to help provide crucial donor milk to at-risk infants.
After delivering her twins at the Da Nang Hospital for Women and Children, the delivery room nurse explained the human milk bank process to Thuy, and encouraged her to donate any extra milk she produced. So, when Thuy realized that her twins were too small to consume all the milk she was expressing, she underwent the rigorous health screening process, and began donating her extra milk to the milk bank.
With a Vietnamese colleague by my side to translate, I asked Thuy if she had faced opposition from friends or family who objected to breastfeeding or donating milk.
Thankfully, no. Although Thuy’s family and husband’s family, who she lives with, support her decisions to breastfeed and donate extra milk, not all new mothers in the hospital feel the same. “My hospital roommate told me to stop donating my milk and to save it for later in case I need it,” Thuy remarked.
“Why did you decide not to take her advice?” I asked.
“Because at the moment I don’t need the extra breastmilk. Maybe in the future my babies will need it, but not now.”
Today, at 34 weeks, Thuy’s twins are stable in the neonatal intensive care unit, and other newborns are likely benefitting from her amazing gift of donated breastmilk.