A women's hospital in the Mexican border city of Juárez recently began a maternal milk bank for babies. Its first beneficiary was a premature girl who was delivered via emergency cesarean section. Her mom died from a bullet wound to the head. As news of her story spread, other mothers in Juárez responded by donating their own milk to help the newborn survive.
At the government-run women's hospital in Juárez, tiny babies hooked up to heart monitors laid in Plexiglas cribs at the intensive care unit. This hospital specializes in women's care and is the busiest in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua with up to 7,000 births per year.
The nurses here feed six low weight preemies with miniature tubes since they aren't big enough to take a bottle or a breast. Most drink formula, but the hospital hopes it will soon switch to breast milk. Its maternal milk bank, which opened in late August, is currently working to build up its supply.
The first baby to benefit from the milk bank showed up during its debut week.
Doctors rescued Yamilet Villa from her mother's womb six weeks before her expected due date. Her mom was shot in the head while driving in a residential neighborhood on the night of Aug. 27. A friend who was also wounded drove her to the hospital. Police are still investigating the case, but believe it's tied to organized crime. It happened during a violent weekend in Juárez with 11 homicides reported in 72 hours.
Even after her mother died, Yamilet clung to life.
"It's a miracle baby," said Olivia Landeros León, a nurse who helps run the milk bank in Juárez.
Landeros said once the media reported Yamilet's story, the hospital began getting calls immediately.
"We have been having a lot of support from moms from Juárez," she said.
The milk bank went from three registered donors to 23 donors within days. Landeros said most are professionals in their mid-20s. Student moms have also donated.
"When you see they have a job, they have a house, they have responsibilities but still they come and they provide their milk and their time, it's really beautiful," she said.
The milk bank works something like a blood bank. Mothers must donate in person and their milk is tested by the hospital before being accepted. It's especially useful for premature babies whose moms can't produce their own milk for a variety of reasons, including illness and stress. Medical studies show breast milk is a healthier and safer option for preemies.
"We know that there's a direct benefit, that human milk protects baby's gut from infection," said Pauline Sakamoto, who runs a nonprofit milk bank in San Jose, Calif.
Sakamoto is a former president of the Human Milk Bank Association of North America, which oversees 26 nonprofit milk banks across the U.S. and Canada. In Mexico there are 17 milk banks nationwide according to the Mexican Secretary of Health.
Leticia Jurado recently brought her daughter Denise Hernandez to donate milk at the Juárez hospital. Both work as life insurance saleswomen. Her daughter has a five-month-old baby and produces more milk than she needs.
"We didn't know there was a milk bank here until we saw Yamilet’s story on the news," Jurado said. "Before my daughter used to throw out the extra milk. Now she'll come in twice a week to donate."
Despite the initial boost in milk supply after Yamilet's arrival, donations have since slowed down. The hospital is continuing to call on area moms to contribute.
The donations that have come in helped save Yamilet’s life. On Wednesday, after two and a half weeks in the hospital, her family was finally able to take her home.