On September 8, 2011, I parted ways with 42 bags of frozen breast milk at the Milk Depot at The Women’s Hospital to be donated to the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank. In addition to those mere 62 ounces, three small bottles of my breast milk were housed in Indianapolis in my sister’s freezer, waiting to be dropped off at the milk bank as the last few ounces of my donation. The reason I had a small amount of breast milk stored in my sister’s freezer, three hours away from my home in Evansville, is because I pumped those bottles just a month prior to donating them while at Riley Hospital for Children.
My 22-month-old son, Gavin, underwent open heart surgery on August 5, 2011, and I wanted to prepare stores of liquid gold to aide him in his recovery. Gavin was diagnosed with corrected transposition of the great vessels while in utero. I knew from the start that I wanted to breastfeed him, and my desire to do so increased that much more once I learned he had a congenital heart defect. Upon his birth in Indianapolis, Gavin was monitored closely, and after a quick, delicate snuggle, he was taken to the NICU at Riley to be observed in his first hours of life outside the womb. The following morning, I went to be with Gavin, and for the first time, I put him to breast. I was nervous and fearful that he would not take to me since we were separated so quickly after he was born, but he latched well, and with warm reassurances from my husband, I felt a confidence growing. With loving coaching from my nurses, I pumped tiny syringes with the amazing beginnings of my lactating experience, and soon, my milk came in with abundance.
When we were discharged from the hospital and finally home, our breastfeeding relationship was sailing smoothly. I began to build a freezer stash to provide for Gavin upon my return to work. Pumping at work went well at first, but soon I found that I was not pumping appropriately, and my supply dropped. I began doing whatever I could to maintain what little supply I had, and at the end of the day, I had to tell myself that every ounce mattered to my precious son. I would not give up, and instead, persevered to produce around 2 ounces a day, even after multiple pumping sessions.
As Gavin grew, he nursed less and less, but without fail, he always had his “nursies” in the morning upon waking for the day. At night, before bedtime stories and teeth brushing, he would have a sippy cup of expressed breast milk. I was overjoyed that, even after my struggles with supply, he was getting breast milk at least twice a day, even as a toddler.
On the morning of his surgery, we woke Gavin at 5:00 a.m. to take him to the hospital. Being exhausted from the prior day’s pre-operative procedures, he was not ready to get up, and cried for his nursies. But that morning, he needed an empty belly, and I had to deny him. The memory of his precious voice crying out for that comfort is one that will never fade, and it only pushed me to work as hard as I could to produce milk for his days of recovery.
During his surgery, I pumped. As the strenuous day turned into night, it wouldn’t be long before Gavin would be done with his operation. That evening, 17 hours after I handed him to the nurse to take him to the operating room, I visited the bedside of my baby boy, and I stroked his head, hands, and feet reassuringly, envisioning the days to follow with hopefulness as he recovered—picturing play time and laughter. Hours later, Gavin’s condition began to deteriorate, and things began to look very grim as the day pressed on. That night, I began to cling to whatever thread of positive thinking I could, begging and pleading that Gavin would pull through. The following morning, August 7th
, I felt it. I felt the inevitable truth. I wasn’t going to face it. I plugged in my pump and expressed the last bottles of milk my body would make for Gavin. In the hours to follow, my husband and I were given the news that Gavin was no longer with us.
As chaplains came with books and pamphlets, information on funeral homes, and phone numbers for support lines, my mind was completely blank. During that time, however, I was approached by one very special nurse who mentioned the Indiana Mothers’ Milk Bank to me. Without hesitation, I knew I wanted to donate Gavin’s milk. In the darkest time of our lives, we have been able to keep Gavin's light shining so brightly by being able to share something so sacred.
The drive home on August 8th was a heavy journey. Inside that vehicle was an empty car seat with cracker crumbs left behind by a precious toddler just days before; a suitcase full of toys and books that once waited to be touched by two precious, playful hands of a boy who would be recovering from open-heart surgery; a father and a mother who, minute by minute, endured unfathomable brokenness.
After a month had passed, I decided it was time to take another step in my grieving process. It was time to donate the milk I had in the freezer for Gavin. Since Gavin was beyond one year of age when the milk in my freezer was pumped, it would not provide the adequate sustenance necessary for a critically-ill infant, so instead, it would be used for research to help further understand the complexities and brilliance of breast milk. It felt so fitting for my milk to be utilized in this way as there were several instances in which I called upon information that was discovered through trials of researching breast milk. I dealt with a great amount of anxiety and was prescribed medication to help cope with Gavin’s impending surgery, and I felt very fortunate to be able to continue to safely make milk for Gavin while also tending to my needs to help stay calm and strong for my son.
After loading my cooler, which just happened to be given to me while Gavin was in surgery so that I could safely store the milk I pumped for his recovery, I arrived at The Women’s Hospital, and as I weakly walked to Great Beginnings, I began to feel my heart race. I dropped off the milk, and once I zipped up the empty cooler, a flood of tears came. But as I walked to the parking lot, carrying an empty cooler, I was also carrying an entirely unexpected, marvelous gift—the life of Gavin’s baby brother, Holden.
To read more of Haley's personal blog that focuses on the days prior to her donating the milk, you may visit