'I drove around collecting milk, while she pumped in the chemo ward' – Stephen Teap on importance of breast milk donation

When Irene Teap was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2015, she was certain of one thing. She wanted her 18-week-old son Noah to continue to be breastfed.

Irene was one of the 221 women caught up in the CervicalCheck controversy. She died in July 2017, having twice been given the all-clear in smear tests carried out in 2010 and 2013. Had the illness been detected, her life could have been saved.

She was diagnosed with stage 2B cervical cancer 18 weeks after the delivery of her son, Noah.

Irene had breastfed her first son, Oscar, until he was two years old, and intended to breastfeed Noah to that age as well.

When Irene learnt of her diagnosis, she asked her consultants if it would be possible to continue feeding.

But neither she or her husband, Stephen Teap, found a supportive medical professional.

“Irene started chemo when Noah was around 18 weeks old,” Stephen explains.

“She wanted to breastfeed him for the same length of time as Oscar. When she asked about it, we got no support. When she asked if she could breastfed while on treatment, no one listened.

“She was told that she might as well stop as Noah had ‘got the benefits’ of being breastfed for close to six months. They assumed she would switch to formula.”

It was Irene’s wish to continue to express milk while undergoing cancer treatment and resume feeding once she had completed her chemotherapy.

“When she asked how soon she could start breastfeeding after she finished chemo, she couldn’t get a straight answer either,” Stephen says. “The consultants didn’t have a clue. They just presumed she would stop, they didn’t listen to her. We really got zero support. She told me that if another doctor told her she ‘might as well stop breastfeeding’, she would take the head off them.”

Frustrated, Irene looked elsewhere for advice; she contacted a US-based professor and told him exactly what drugs she would be taking as part of her treatment. He informed her that she would not be able to breastfeed while being treated but if she maintained her supply, she could recommence breastfeeding 21 days after she completed her chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

“So we went down the donation route; Irene set up a private Facebook page and spoke with lactation consultants and other mothers she had met at La Leche League of Ireland coffee mornings,” Stephen explains.

It may sound unusual but milk sharing can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt. Back then, it was seen as the only alternative to a mother’s inability to lactate and wet nurses were often depicted alongside the goddess Hathor, a woman with the head of a cow.

Milk sharing continued throughout history, but in the 20th century its popularity began to fall. This was partially due to new medical technology, and the increased availability of formula. Other events such as the HIV crisis also affected how people viewed breast milk donation – some were wary as the infection could be carried in mothers’ milk.

However, in recent year’s, milk sharing and milk donation has started to become increasingly common, as more new mothers are looking to donate. Social media sites have become a point to connect with like-minded people. For Irene, this was a revelation and offered huge solace – even though at times it was physically and emotionally draining.

When her treatment started, Irene began ‘pumping and dumping’ her milk to ensure her supply remained high. “She would wake up in the middle of the night and despite being in terrible pain would pump,” Stephen says.

“When she was spending day-long sessions in hospital getting chemotherapy, she would express. The nurses in the hospital were very supportive – they hadn’t seen anything like it before.”

Meanwhile, Stephen would drive around the country collecting donations from other mothers. “I would drive around to different houses – including Irene’s sister, who was breastfeeding at the time. We bought a second fridge to store all the milk in,” he says.

Irene took huge comfort in the knowledge that her child was receiving nutrient-rich breast milk. “It meant so much to her. You never know who your breast milk is going to or who you are helping. It was so important to Irene.

“She was a big breastfeeding advocate and it meant so much to her that she could continue to feed Noah while undergoing treatment. Then 21 days after she completed treatment, she began feeding him herself. That was a real milestone for her.”

While Irene and Stephen opted to use private donations, Holles Street and Crumlin Children’s Children Hospital rely on donations from the Western Trust Milk Bank – Ireland’s only human milk bank. Facebook groups tend to operate on a policy of trust, whereas the milk bank has more strict rules in place to ensure all milk is safe for consumption.

Since reopening in December 2018, the Human Milk Bank has processed approximately 570 litres of donor expressed milk and provided approximately 510 litres of breast milk to 27 neonatal units in hospitals across Ireland, helping 278 babies.

This includes 30 sets of twins and six sets of triplets. Breast milk donations are vital for premature and sick babies. Human milk contains substances that cannot be synthesised, which helps the babies fight viruses and bacteria and protects them from pneumonia and septicaemia.

In particular, it can protect the gut from rupturing, a potentially life-threatening condition called necrotising enterocolitis.

When Alana Meikle’s daughter Grace was born early, she weighed 5lb 5oz and had severe jaundice. She received donated milk from the Western Milk Bank until her mum was able to breastfeed.

“I didn’t realise donor milk was a thing until Grace was born and thanks to mummies who donate, we were able to give her donor milk to give her the best start to life,” says Alana.

“My milk was slow to come in and those first few days were vital to clear the jaundice and just give her a real fighting chance. So it was amazing that we could use the service.” The service also supports mothers of twins, triplets and quads who are unable to produce enough milk of their own.

 

Donors are mothers who are breastfeeding their own babies (up to six months old) and have excess milk. They are asked to provide a donation of at least three litres (100oz) by the time their baby is six months old. A full history is taken from all potential donors and blood tests are undertaken for HIV one and two; HTLV one and two; Hepatitis B and C; and syphilis.

The milk bank cannot accept donations from mothers that have had a blood transfusion, smoke, received certain IVF treatments or are taking antidepressants. The milk bank issues pre-sterile bottles.

The donors record their name and expression date on each bottle. Once donors have collected sufficient milk they contact the milk bank for a transport box, which is then sent to the bank using a variety of transport routes with milk frozen in insulated boxes.

⬤ For further information on the Western Trust Milk Bank, call 028 686 28333 or email [email protected]

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