A Provo woman's extraordinary donation is helping save the lives of America's most fragile children.

Amanda Cooley has turned her own hardship into a gift for strangers by donating 21 gallons -- yes, you read that right -- of breast milk to the milk bank.

On Feb. 13, Cooley's son Grant was born a staggering 14 weeks early, forcing him to spend the next 127 days in the newborn intensive care unit.

"He needed breathing support, and then we were working on eating," she said. To live, her son had to learn to "suck milk, swallow and breathe all at the same time, and that was a really long process."

Today, her six-month-old son is home and "all better. He is doing great," she said. He is fed breast milk, mixed with special nutrients and calories, from a bottle and does not nurse. But partly because of genetics and partly because her body is accustomed to pumping, his mother has an unusual ability.

"I produce almost double what most women produce," she said.

The milk is collected by county health officials as part of a new local donation program, frozen and sent to sent to Colorado, where it is pasteurized for safety. The milk is then used by hospitals in Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada. The Colorado milk bank provides milk to all of Utah County's hospitals.

"I didn't realize how much it really was," Cooley said of her donation. Officials had told her there was a minimum deposit, and she was afraid she wouldn't have enough. Instead, her first donation alone added up to nearly 11 gallons.

"They distribute it out by the ounce, so that is a lot of babies that are getting a lot more milk," she said. "I was glad that I could help another mom who was going through something similar to what I was going through. When your baby is so little and sick and fragile there is nothing you can do."

Donated breast milk is "second place" to a mother's own milk, but ahead of other options, she said.

Cooley's contribution is nearing an end. She is a special education teacher at Spanish Fork High School and returns to work in two weeks. She has been saving her milk, freezing it so it can be fed to her son while she is working.

Amanda Ottley, breastfeeding coordinator for the Utah County Health Department, said local donations have topped 1,000 ounces in just two weeks -- and that doesn't even count Cooley's 21 gallons, which were donated before the local donation depot opened.

"Her next donation she'll drop off here," Ottley said.

In a letter to the Daily Herald, NICU nurse Deanne Francis of Provo, who is also part of a task force to open a Utah milk bank, said there "is a serious shortage of pasteurized human donor milk in the United States. Human milk is cost-effective for newborn intensive care units not because it is cheaper, but because it is tolerated much better, is more easily digested and most importantly, decreases the number of serious infections to which these fragile babies are prone. With reduced complications and feeding intolerance, the medical costs to parents, insurance companies and the community are significantly less. It also helps us meet the medical recommendation to keep newborns exclusively on human milk."

Francis encouraged lactating mothers "with an overabundance of riches to donate."

Donations can be taken to the Utah County Health and Justice building at 151 S. University Ave. in Provo.

-- Caleb Warnock covers 11 cities in north Utah County and is also the Daily Herald's environmental reporter. You can find him on Facebook and at calebwarnock.blogspot.com.
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