"You have an amazing superpower." That is the message Kim Updegrove wants to share with the childbearing population of Austin.

Updegrove is the executive director of Mothers' Milk Bank at Austin, which has a mission to provide milk for preterm infants in Austin and throughout the U.S.

"Breast milk is a scarce resource. We struggle to meet the demand, and we are dependent on the compassion and the information that these healthy lactating moms have," Updegrove said. "Getting the word out to the childbearing population that they have a superpower, that they can donate their milk and save the lives of preterm infants, is a very good thing."

The milk bank was founded in 1999 by two neonatologists, Dr. George Sharpe from Seton Healthcare and Dr. Sonny Rivera from St. David's HealthCare.

Updegrove said the two doctors wanted to address a critical issue among preterm infants—that of how many preterm babies get an inflammatory disease called necrotizing enterocolitis. The disease, which cuts off the blood supply to the infant's intestines, occurs when the infants are not given human breast milk.

"If these kids survive, they are very sick, and they are sick lifelong—their intestines don't work the way that they are supposed to work," she said. "The [doctors] got together and they said, 'The research is really quite clear. The way to avoid this or at least to reduce it substantially is to avoid any kind of substitute for mom's milk.'"

Prioritized recipients for the donated milk are babies who weigh 3 pounds, 5 ounces and less, she explained.

"These aren't hold-in-your-arms kind of babies; these are hold-in-your-hand," she said. "These babies really matter, and thanks to medical technology, we're able to keep more of them alive. Now we want to optimize their outcomes. Now we want to improve how they are post-recovery."

Breast milk that is donated to the milk bank undergoes a rigorous process that includes screening for diseases and medical and lifestyle risks; microbiological and nutritional analysis; pasteurization and then another round of microbiological and nutritional tests. Milk from multiple donors is mixed to create a pool with a specific calorie content.

"Because we're taking care of these teeny, tiny fragile babies, we want to know exactly what's in the pools of milk we create," she said. "We want to create them specifically to have a minimum standard."

Milk is provided to patients based on medical need and not on financial resources or insurance coverage, she said.

"I was asked a very important question once by a reporter who said, 'Why should he care? Why should the general public care?'" she said. "If we allow these infants to survive and optimize their brain development, they then are the population that might go on to figure out how we avoid diabetes, how we eradicate breast cancer. They will be fully enabled to be contributing members of society because of the gifts of milk and finances that allow them to grow so well. That's why you care."

Charitable care program

The charitable care program at Mothers' Milk Bank at Austin is supported by individual, corporate and foundation donors. Executive Director Kim Updegrove said that in 2012, those donors contributed about $140,000 in financial gifts to the milk bank.

"When somebody donates charitably to us, they're not paying for the electricity and the water and my staff salaries. They're only paying for charitable care, which is a very unique nonprofit stance," Updegrove said. "Basically, hospitals' payment of processing fees pays for everything to keep the milk bank operating, and then peoples' donations cover charitable care or our research program if I've specifically fundraised for that."

Updegrove described the milk bank's community partners as "amazing" because not only do they provide financial support, but they also help raise awareness of the milk bank and its mission.