Udaipur: For infants bereft of mother’s milk for whatever reason, there’s no option other than synthetic feed available in the market, right? Wrong. Not if there is a milk bank in the vicinity. Milk bank is a bank that stores pasteurised human milk to cater to such newborns. Divya Mother Milk Bank in Panna Dhai Hospital, started in Udaipur three years ago, now has heartening stories to tell about how it came to the rescue of 3,013 babies longing for mother’s milk.
Thus far, the milk bank has collected 35,795 units (30 ml per unit) of milk from 11,180 sitting and 4,806 new donors. The impact of the project has been so overwhelming that the team behind it is now working on a training module, reportedly the first of its kind in Asia, that will train 90 medical professionals on how to emulate the concept in their respective cities.
The man spearheading the project is 42-year-old Devendra Agarwal, who quit being a marketing professional at the age of 28 to serve the country. His endeavours in saving the girl child and abandoned infants have already made a difference.
A stray comment thrown at him that no matter what he did, he could not provide abandoned children with mother’s milk, set him on the path to think of a human milk bank. He studied the idea, worked on it and took it to the government. Impressed with it, two private donors donated Rs 20 lakh in the project, and the first milk bank in Rajasthan was set up in Udaipur in 2013.
Preserving human milk is no easy task, says Agarwal. The cost of processing milk for a 30 ml bottle alone is close to Rs 300. Within 72 hours, the collected milk has to be put through various temperatures to let it last for six months. Infants in need are given the milk for free and it is collected without giving any honorarium to donating mothers.
“They are giving life to a child with this donation and one cannot put a monetary value on it,” says Agarwal.
Agarwal’s NGO, Maa Bhagwati Vikas Sansthan, and the hospital, bear the costs of preserving the milk. Philanthropists help the NGO pay the salaries of the bank’s all-female staff.
Around two dozen lactating mothers visit the hospital every day to donate milk. The daily collection comes to nearly two litres. Interested women have to fulfil a set of criteria. They have to undergo a blood test at the hospital’s expense and disclose details of medications that they are on. They are also checked for tattoos.
Finding lactating mothers has not been difficult. “The media has helped in getting the message across,” says Agarwal.
Lactating mothers who donate milk are grateful for the opportunity to come to the rescue of the babies. Twenty-four-year-old Rekha Chhaidwal, mother of a five-year-old girl and a three-year-old boy, says she visited Panna Dhai Hospital for vaccinations during her second pregnancy in 2013, when the milk bank was in the process of being set up.
She fell in love with the concept when her mechanical engineer husband explained to her that the bank would collect human milk for babies in need. The idea spoke to her maternal instincts. She asked her husband if it would be fine if she ever becomes a donor. He had no objections. So, after the birth of her second child, Chhaidwal started visiting the hospital and, over the next few months, she contributed as much as 21 kgs of milk. “I used to walk three kilometres to and from the hospital every day,” she says.
She rues the fact that such a facility did not exist when she had given birth to her first child. A lot of milk had to be wasted, she laments. Now, she breastfeeds her son and the excess milk goes to the bank. “I’m counting the blessings I’m getting in return,” she says.
A class XII graduate, Chhaidwal felt encouraged to study further. Today, she is about to graduate. Her field of study? Nursing.
A similar story is that of 28-year-old Usha Warsi, married to a real estate businessman who came across a human milk bank in Gujarat in 2011. “There and then, when I was not even pregnant, I resolved to donate my milk whenever I got the opportunity,” says Warsi.
In 2013, on a visit to her hometown Udaipur, Warsi saw the newly set up milk bank. “When I gave birth in 2013, I had a caesarean delivery and was on bed rest for almost 40 days. I was feeling bad at the waste of my milk all those days. There was no provision to collect the milk from home. On the 41st day, I said enough is enough, and went to the bank and started donating. I continued for almost one and half years,” she says.
So keen was Warsi’s desire to donate milk that when her body’s capacity to generate milk reduced, she would feed her son from one breast and donate milk from the other.
There are many women like Warsi. Lactating mothers who feel strongly for the babies of mothers they have never set eyes upon, much less known. Agarwal says he has come across women who have donated as much as 800 ml of milk in one sitting.
With the heartwarming success of the Udaipur human milk bank, the Rajasthan government has recognised its importance and has decided to open ten such centres across the state at a cost of Rs 10 crore. Beaming with joy, Agarwal says milk banks in Alwar and Bharatpur will start functioning within a month.
The idea of a milk bank is not entirely new to India. The human milk bank at Sion Hospital in Mumbai has been in operation since 1989. But the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare got involved with the idea only recently. In August 2015, the ministry told the parliament that guidelines were being framed to set up milk banks in government hospitals. However, at present, the Centre does not have any immediate plan to start milk banks in all state and Centre-run government hospitals.
Undeterred by what the government is doing or not doing, Agarwal continues to pursue his goal of aiding children in need. Under the ‘Palna’ project, he had taken responsibility of about 150 abandoned girls. Of them, all but 25 have been adopted.
I’m now trying to take on newer challenges. I want to make a shelter for pregnant women who want secrecy, have nowhere to go and end up abandoning the newborn immediately after birth. It’s a tough legal issue, but we will be successful, he asserts.
Mamta Todi is a journalist with ten years of experience. She has covered stories on aviation and social issues for the New Indian Express and the Times of India.