Julie Booker's delivery had been bloody. Afterward, she sat on the couch in her Queen Anne living room, her baby pressed to her chest, a small plastic tube taped to her nipple. What little Isabella got from the tube, Booker had coaxed forth with an electric breast pump. When the tube was off, her breast's seep slowed to a stop. She put it back on. She pumped. She tried formula; Isabella sucked it down, then threw it right back up.
Booker watched the baby's weight drop: from seven pounds eight ounces at birth down into the six-pound range, where she hovered for a month, until Booker's midwife walked in the door with a little plastic baggie of milk from a local mother who had a freezer's worth to spare.
I am sitting in the waiting room of Ali Tromblay's Kirkland midwifery, when Tromblay walks in. We were to meet at her office during her lunch hour. But there's a hungry baby, Tromblay's youngest, a 20-minute drive away. "I have a proposition for you," she says.
Minutes later, we're in her VW wagon heading toward State Route 522, talking about Tromblay's feeding her babies pure, raw milk from 70 different women.
Breast milk is nature's first food, with custom-made antibodies, proteins, and fats of a mix and quality that no formula maker has successfully mass-produced. The two companies that make most of the world's baby formula will send you a free starter can in the mail during the first week of your child's life. But the nursing revolution that began in the mid-1950s, when U.S. breastfeeding rates hovered around 20 percent, has set a new norm: that babies need the food that only mother can provide.
But what if mother can't?
Perhaps her baby didn't come by birth, but by adoption, like Tromblay's. Perhaps there was a medical problem, like Booker's, who is dealing with Sheehan's syndrome, a severe blood loss at childbirth that all but precludes lactation.
As breastfeeding rates climb toward 75 percent, those whose milk won't flow are helped by the electric breast pump, deep freezers, and dry ice to procure the next best thing, sometimes from across the country: other women's milk. Not pasteurized and pretested by a milk bank, the lactose equivalent of a blood bank, charging $3.25 an ounce, but real human milk, for free. The milk flows, it nurtures, and it makes possible some unusual connections.
"We were done with breast milk for four months and then got the new baby," says Tromblay, "and had to start all over again." Last November's snowstorm successfully weaned the older, Gabriel, now two. "Breast pumps weren't working, milk sacks were thawing in people's fridges. We put him to bed with a binky. When we got power back, he wouldn't drink it." While a community of milksharing families exists online, Tromblay began her breast milk network by asking clients and fellow midwives to pump, freeze, and store it for her. Working mothers who pumped a surplus; friends who came to her saying, "I love you, I'm going to love this baby, and I'm going to help feed them": both kinds of people pitched in, she says.
Especially new mothers of preemies unready to suckle, who figure they'll thaw those first proceeds eventually. "Then you find that your supply so far exceeds the baby's demand that you end up with literally a freezer full."
Not all arrangements worked out; two mothers' offerings Tromblay's babies rejected. "And of course wouldn't you know, they were both people who produced massive quantities." In one case, Booker's daughter happily sucked down what Tromblay's youngest wouldn't stomach. Other offers Tromblay declined for fear of antidepressants. A number of milk recipients in the Seattle area say they ask questions about HIV, diet, and drug use and, satisfied with the answers, don't require medical documentation. If this milk were tainted, they say, these women wouldn't be feeding it to their own babies.
We pull into the driveway of Tromblay's Woodinville home. From the back seat she grabs a cooler; inside is milk she'd found in the office freezer this morning. It came in a plastic bag scrawled with the words "To Ali from Andrea," and a heart.
Across the kitchen, taped to the fridge, is a list of names. Alysia Tromblay, Ali's partner, ticks down the list. Jan, Andrea, Tamara. Seventy in all.
"What makes this magical for us, and for the people, is the one-on-one," says Alysia. "They see the child, they get to meet the child, we get to thank them directly." The milk banks don't offer that. For the lactating moms, "To be able to do a single gesture that accomplishes so much -- it's monumental. I get moved to tears all the time."
The milk's been thawed, poured into a bottle, and warmed. Raphael is drinking. There's more where that came from. Hungry baby emergency over.
These days, Julie Booker's seven-month old Isabella loves pureed apples. She's had red lentils, banana, and split peas; at Thanksgiving, she tried turkey. Booker wants to continue using donated milk until her baby turns one. So far, her list of donors stands at 20.
Donors and recipients today feel their kids are somehow related; Booker says Isabella is the donor families' "milk daughter. There's a special relationship there."
Of failing to breastfeed, she says, "Emotionally it was the most difficult thing I have ever dealt with." She pauses. "It broke my heart. It still does."
Isabella, though, is "doing great, she's beautiful, and she's getting all the benefits of breast milk."
What will she tell her daughter, when she's older, about her first food?
"That a lot of people loved her."