Just 1 ounce can save a life. That simple message is the driving force behind a new community initiative led by Hays Medical Center and the Ellis County Breastfeeding Coalition.

Northwest Kansas mothers now have the option of easily donating extra breastmilk to a Colorado-based milk bank that distributes the donations to newborns most in need at hospitals in 24 states.

“It’s truly life-saving,” said Laraine Lockhart Borman, director of outreach at Mothers’ Milk Bank based in Arvada, Colo. “If there are people who have extra milk, they can save a baby’s life with their milk. And what a powerful thing.”

Breastmilk long has been identified as the No. 1 food source for newborns due to a variety of health benefits, but not every mother is able to breastfeed immediately — especially if the baby is born premature. Mothers’ milk is especially advantageous for preemies or infants with other health concerns, as it contains antibodies that can help prevent bacterial and viral infections which can be fatal to fragile newborns.

Just 1 ounce of milk is enough to potentially feed an infant in neonatal intensive care for a full day.

HaysMed now is a drop-off and shipping location for milk donations, allowing certified donors to easily contribute. The hospital foundation provided monetary support for the purchase of large freezers to safely store any donated milk.

The donations are pasteurized to kill any viruses or bacteria, but the milk still retains an estimated 95 percent of its nutritional benefits, according to information from Mothers’ Milk Bank.

Before participating, mothers must meet several qualifications and have a blood screening to rule out any communicable diseases or other health concerns. Health assessments also are required to ensure donating milk will not be problematic for either the mother or her child.

But the application process is relatively easy and quick, and for Hays mother Sarah Patterson, it was well worth it. Patterson gave birth to her first child — a boy named Finley — approximately six months ago. The entire certification process was finished in approximately two weeks, she said.

While every mother’s breastfeeding experience can be different, Patterson quickly learned she had an oversupply, meaning she produced more milk than her son needed. The family’s freezer was overflowing with expressed milk, and she couldn’t stand the thought of letting it go to waste.

“It’s something that’s so easy for me to do, and when so many other people do struggle with it, it kind of seems silly not to (donate),” she said.

A quick tally revealed Patterson had stored approximately 2,600 ounces of milk.

Both Sarah and her husband, Lane, are employed by HaysMed, and said they found the hospital’s lactation consulting services especially helpful as first-time parents. They also were relieved to hear there would be an easy way to ensure the precious liquid would not go to waste, she said.

“I’ve heard mothers say, ‘I dropped a bottle (of breastmilk), and it just made me want to cry’ because it’s not easy,” Patterson said. “You see movies, and people talk about it like it’s just this easy thing and it’s natural. But it’s not for everybody. I don’t think anybody can really know what to expect when you are having your first kid, what it feels like or what it’s going to feel like.”

HaysMed frequently receives inquiries from local mothers who have extra milk and want to do something positive with it, said Jill Rozean, a nurse and International Board Certified Lactation consultant. The hospital is proud to partner with the non-profit milk bank, she said.

“So the importance of that means that mothers are not paid for their donation, but it would go to babies in need,” Rozean said. “Just like it says, an ounce can save a life. It truly goes to babies in NICU or with medical conditions who truly need mothers’ milk to thrive and grow.”

Because Mothers’ Milk Bank is a non-profit, women are not paid for their donations. That also means families already facing difficult situations do not face additional costs in the hospital when donated milk is needed for their children.

Donors are asked to commit to giving 150 ounces if possible. That was no problem for Patterson, who made the decision to donate approximately 1,000 ounces to the milk bank. Patterson’s husband, Lane, carried a large box full of donated milk into HaysMed on Wednesday, marking the first local contribution to the new initiative.

“Just think how many babies that just saved,” Rozean said Wednesday after receiving the Pattersons’ donation. “What a selfless gift.”