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For seven long years, Sandy resident Emily Fernandez and her husband had tried to have a baby. Finally, they accepted that they would be, she said, a “family of two.”

Then while driving to her niece’s dance recital in 2010, her mother-in-law rang.

“What did your mom want?” she asked when her husband hung up.

“She wants to know if we want to adopt a baby,” he said. A distant relative had given birth prematurely. Not only had she been unaware she was pregnant and sought no prenatal care, she’d also used drugs during the pregnancy.

An hour after the call that changed their lives, they received a texted photo of “a tiny ball of wires and tubes with little eyes poking out,” Emily recalled.

After custody issues were resolved, the Fernandez’ were recognized by the California hospital caring for the infant as the baby’s guardians and called to consult on the care of Marcus, as the adopters named him.

Marcus had developed necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a bacterial disease that attacks the intestine. NEC is the number one cause of gastrointestinal mortality among preemies in the neonatal intensive care unit. And, if they don’t receive human milk, they are 10 times more likely to contract it. Treating a baby with NEC can cost $1-2 million.

Was it alright to give Marcus donated breast milk as a supplement to the antibiotics he was on, they asked?

“I didn’t even know you could do such a thing,” Emily told the hospital staff. “Please do.”

Breast milk is fundamental to a baby’s health, said University of Utah Health Perinatal Education Coordinator Elizabeth Smith.

“We know from numerous studies that the more breast milk a baby receives, the better chances the baby has of really good short and long-term health outcomes,” Smith said. The problem, however, is that only 30 percent of mothers who give birth prematurely can produce enough breast milk, due to a variety of factors including physiology and stress.

While the popularity of human milk banks has ebbed and flowed through the years, recently there’s been increased use of donated breast milk in NICUs (nearly 40 percent in 2015 according to The Atlantic). There are currently 23 accredited milk banks in the U.S.

While Utah has the highest birth rate in the nation, with 9.4 percent of babies in 2018 born premature, it’s only now finally getting a geographically-based operation to pasteurize locally donated mother’s milk and distribute it.

In January 2019, the University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare announced a joint-venture, each committing $250,000 over the following year to expand the Mountain West Mothers’ Milk Bank. The milk bank is a nonprofit organization that collects donated milk which is screened for HIV, tobacco, alcohol, drugs and other potentially harmful contaminants.

Donation centers are located in Utah and Idaho. It then pasteurizes and tests the milk in Denver, before sending it back out to donation points, including across the Salt Lake valley. The new funds will allow the milk bank to short-circuit the current system and pasteurize and distribute milk directly in Utah and Idaho. The plan is for the new system to come online by June or July.

Smith said that “helping mothers with premature babies get through a challenging period of time with one less worry,” is critical for the families and the community.

Having first been introduced to the concept of breast milk donation through adopting Marcus, when Emily saw a local billboard advertising a milk bank initiative she knew she had to pay it forward and support it.

While she couldn’t donate milk, she could help with fundraising. She’s on the Mountain West Mothers’ Milk Bank fundraising committee and is helping to plan their annual Golden Milk gala, scheduled for September. Along with dinner and a silent auction, there’s an award presentation for moms who donate milk.

And the theme of the night, riffing as each gala does on celebrating donor mothers? “We’re going with a super-hero theme,” Emily said.