A human donor milk repository in Albuquerque has a growing demand and, with a need to expand, is exploring a private-public partnership to do so.
Erin Marshall, along with her husband Kael Marshall, started the only human donor milk repository in New Mexico. She said they did so because New Mexico had high rates of premature babies born with a condition called necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC. Marshall said one way to think of it is as a disease that kills the neonate’s colon.
She said the rate of NEC in New Mexico has decreased in recent years. But when the Marshalls first began to consider the issue, in 2016, New Mexico had one of the highest rates of NEC in the country, she said.
The Marshalls began in 2018 working to build their own nonprofit human donor milk bank but it became accredited in 2021. A human donor milk bank has to meet both clinical accreditation and standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Kael Marshall, the executive director of the Human Milk Repository of New Mexico, said the formula shortage that took place in 2021 impacted them and that during that period they got many phone calls but, he said, the formula crisis has recovered.
“The need for a milk bank is persistent,” he said.
Erin Marshall said that in 2022, the company’s first full year of operation, the human donor milk bank provided almost 50,000 ounces of donated breast milk.
As of the end of August 2023, they have provided 35,000 ounces, an increased demand.
She said the list of donors has grown as well. Marshall said that in 2022 they had 86 new donors and as of August 2023, they’ve had 62 new donors, with many returning donors when a former donor has another child.
Marshall said the Human Milk Repository is the only one in the state and that because there is a dearth of human donor milk banks in the region, they also fill in the gap for outpatient services for individuals who live in nearby states.
“At one point, we were the only human donor milk bank to maintain outpatient services in the nation during COVID,” she said.
The human donor milk bank screens potential donors through a blood test. Then the donor can drop off their excess milk at a donation station. She said the repository has established donation stations at some hospitals in cities around the state.
Marshall said the cost of processing the milk is “very expensive” for those who lack insurance coverage and it can be out of reach for many families. She said they have applied for grant funding and that board members have “stepped up in critical situations.”
Marshall said her consulting firm is paying for the facility where they are currently located. Marshall is a lawyer and a public health lobbyist.
She said, ideally, a public-private partnership would materialize and they could open in a larger facility by 2025.
Marshall said not every baby that needs human donor milk is in the midst of a health emergency. She said there are often times when a new parent cannot produce milk when the baby is initially born and so the family needs a bridge.
She said that when a birthing patient needs to have a C-section or is diabetic, for instance, the patient’s body may need 72 hours to recover before it starts to provide breast milk for the neonate. Those are instances of when a new parent might need what Marshall called “bridge milk.”
Once a baby is released from NICU [neonatal intensive care unit], the family may also need bridge milk as an outpatient service, Marshall said.
Marshall said they are a new company and so are still exploring ways to get the word out for families who need that bridge milk. She said hospitals know to reach out to them for inpatient human donor milk.
She said if they cannot find a partnership with a public entity, she may have to pay for the expansion herself.
“We’ll continue to do this as long as I can. I contribute personally….It is my passion. I believe very strongly in this. We’ve seen the results. We can’t let it go away,” Marshall said.