Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Care and Feeding of a Habesha Tortuga

A woman that I have never met before is breastfeeding my son.

How's that for an opening sentence?

She isn't literally breastfeeding him, but he is drinking her milk, a lot of her milk. Every day. Every night.

There is a woman I know, her name is Elena. I met her several years ago. We were in a Yahoo group for women who were trying to get pregnant. I was the only one in the group who didn't end up getting pregnant. Elena got pregnant with triplets. On March 9th, 2005, Elena gave birth to her sons Carlos, Rafael, and Loran. All three of them died in her arms. She eventually went on to adopt two children...

And Ivy...
Xavi and Ivy had breast milk too.

I had been really interested in the idea of breastfeeding your adopted child. I did some research a couple of years ago, and thought that I might be able to give it a shot. Unfortunately it became clear to me that I wasn't brave enough to try it. It seemed that most protocols for induction involved some form of estrogen or progesterone, and since I had had cancer, my docs advised against it. That combined with the eye rolls I received from almost everyone I mentioned the idea to, made me quite discouraged. Many people find it bizarre, or unnatural. Steven was not really supportive either. He didn't think I could do it, and he was right.

I had heard about places where you could get donated breast milk for your adopted kiddos, but I was in such poor shape when we got home from Ethiopia (physically, emotionally) that the last thing I could figure out was how to get healthy, disease free, breast milk for Melese. I had always wanted to do it, but I just didn't have the energy to pursue it.

When we got home Melese transitioned from the sugary Bebelac formula to one our pediatrician recommended. (Disclaimer: I am not knocking anyone for using formula. We use formula too. There is no judgement in this post. I just want to tell you this story).

Elena made getting Melese some breast milk her mission. As she told me, "Julie, this is my passion". She told me to set up a FedEx account for the shipping of the frozen milk, and she got busy finding us a donor. She followed leads, sent e-mails, posted pleas, and interviewed potential donors.

On August 28th, Elena sent me an e-mail,

"Struck gold. A friend of mine found some milk (a lot) for you."

Enter Kasi. Kasi is the middleman as it were. Kasi, a woman I had also never met, delivered fifty bags of frozen milk to my house. (I don't know why a total stranger would do something this nice for someone else, but she did tell me she was from Wisconsin and I am thinking that has something to do with it). The breast milk was from her neighbor, a woman named Nina. I don't know the exact details of why Nina has so much milk, I didn't want to pry too much. I know that she has a new baby daughter, and I think I heard that her daughter couldn't nurse for a medical reason. We continue to get milk from Nina, and Kasi continues to bring it (Did I mention that Kasi is eight months pregnant, and has a young son at home?)

The first time Melese had Nina's milk he looked like one of those pull puppet ornaments, his arms and legs started moving up and down wildly. He guzzled it. He loves it. He absolutely loves it.

(And yes you may notice Mother Fail #204, I have not yet transitioned from the disposable liner, plastic bottles I bought "Just to travel with," to glass ones like I had planned. Isn't likely to happen at this point. Oh, and I didn't make homemade baby food either.)

Melese is healthy, and if you will excuse my saying it, beautiful. He is strong. He has blossomed from a listless baby with a bald patch on the back of his head (from lying in a crib for months), to a very active, very chatty, chub-alicious, chunk of love. He will walk soon. He has four and a half teeth. His eyes are shiny, and his skin is perfect.

I struggled for weeks trying to write a thank you note to Nina. What do you say? I have never even spoken to her on the phone. I don't know anything about her.

How do I thank Elena? I hadn't seen Elena in several years. We scheduled a playdate for September 10th. She just brought Xavi over. I was pretty much a mess. Xavi and Meazi had a great time together. Elena brought me another carrier to use for Melese. Meazi pilfered it for her baby "Sito Mito"...

Elena looked great, but was using a cane because she had a weird pain in her hip. She thought it might be sciatica, or something similar. She had been seeing doctors in the weeks prior in an attempt to get some relief from the pain.

The day after coming to my house, Elena went to pick up Xavi at school and had a seizure. I found this information out from our mutual friend, Deb. I e-mailed Elena. It turns out Elena doesn't have sciatica. This is part of a note she posted on Facebook...

"I'm not going to beat around the bush. I have extremely advanced lung cancer with brain, liver, and bone metastasis. There is a bone tumor in my hip which is of course what has been causing all of this sciatic pain."

Elena has cancer. She is undergoing treatment. Heavy duty treatment. She has cancer. The C word. She has two children, Ivy and Xavi. She has a husband Mark. She has a full life, which now has become about Chemo, and Cat scans.

These three woman have changed my life. It's not about the breast milk. Melese would have been fine without it, I am sure. It is about the intention, the caring, the selfless giving. It is about these women who have much better, and more pressing things to do then think about me, and my baby, and his diet.

In a little while, I will shake Melese's bottle in front of him, the sound of the shaking will set off a smiling frenzy, as he knows the shaking signals that the milk is just seconds away. Mid-bottle he will take a break to smile at me, and nuzzle his big turtle head into my shoulder. We will take a breath together. Then he will continue to eat, and then slowly drift off to sleep in my arms. When this happens, as it does every middle of the night, I will take a moment to hold these three mothers in my thoughts and in my heart; One mother that I don't know at all, one mother who is about to give birth to her daughter, and one mother who is fighting the biggest battle of her life.

These three incredible women...



and Elena...

Thank you.


  1. Oh Jules you have me in tears yet again. That was a beautiful, incredible post. A real testament to those three amazing women, and to you, an equally amazing 4th. And, he is a doll!!

  2. Thinking about Elena.

    And don't knock those liner bottles! I may have filled up an entire landfill during G's infancy but they also saved my sanity:-)

  3. Incredible. Simply incredible.

    (and on a way less emotion provoking bit... Solomon was wearing the same little long undies as your sweet Tortuga has on in the first picture- just last night!!)

  4. Oh Elena. Knowing what she's done for you, I imagine what sort of mom she is to Xavier and Ivy and my heart is breaking for them. How do these things happen?

  5. What an amazing story. A real Thanksgiving.

  6. Oh. My. what love. What joy. What a celebration of motherhood in its truest and deepest sense.
    I wanted Sammy to have breast milk, but because of meds I take it wouldn't have been safe for him. Because he was about to transition to whole milk when we brought him home...I didn't go through the steps to get donated breast milk from a breast bank.
    Thanks for sharing this story Julie...for all those who want breast milk for their babies...for all those who want to just made it all personal and real.
    Thank you.

  7. I have to admit that I'm one of those eye-rollers when I hear about APs trying to breastfeed...but somehow, coming from you, it seems perfectly normal. Hope everyone in this story lives happily ever after...

  8. Blessing two all three women! (you to of course.) Will be thinking and praying for Elena and her family.....

  9. Beautiful post for 3 beautiful women!

  10. So so sorry to read about Elena's diagnosis.

    My friend Irene's Mom is going on hospice. My Aunt just had like 50 lymph nodes removed along with the extraction of a cancerous lump from her tongue.

    Your post is beautiful.

    Melese es una tortugita guapisima.

    Cancer on the other hand is fkg, fkg mean, perpetrating injustice too big for words.

    How special these women in your life...

    Sending Elena warm thoughts for strength, strength.


  11. i hate that bad stuff happens to really good good people. what amazing people. it is not fair. i commend all of you for the love of nurturing of babies. and BTW, i habor great hopes of nursing my adopted ones. i hope i hope i hope. i have an unfair advantage, though, I am nursing a bio kid right now and hope he hangs on so i keep lactating....i hope i hope i hope. if it doesn't work, i'd love to figure out how to donate. in fact, there is no reason i can't donate now. i have an awesome pump. anyone out there, i eat crazy healthily, zero health problems or medications, and can pump along with what my son is drinking right now. how does one go about donating breast milk?

  12. It's wonderful that M is getting breast-milk. We are hoping to do the same (by prescription) since our child will have a compromised immune system.

    I'm thinking about Elena, too, and for a fast recovery.

  13. Beautiful post Julie. Good for you. I think it is wonderful that you decided to feed him breastmilk.

  14. This is a beautiful, touching post - I'm all teary now! Sometimes the goodness/kindness of people can really blow you away. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Gross. Not the breastmilk part - that's beautiful and a whole lot more important than making the food or using glass bottles. What's gross is the cancer part. I hate it. I'm so sorry.

  16. Oh, wow, what an amazing story. I love that you found a way (and your friend helped you) to feed him breast milk. Your friend and her family will be in my thoughts.

  17. I had no idea you could get breast milk like that! What a great idea. I wanted to nurse, but mine wasn't quite young enough to take to it anyway. Try again next time I s'pose.

    Life sometimes seems so unfair. Here's to praying there is a happy ever after.

  18. Oh Julie, I am so happy for you and Melese. I am saying a prayer for Elena. You are a blessed woman, Julie. Love love love to you.

  19. Amazing. Truly amazing. All of you.

    God bless Elena and help her heal.

  20. What vibrant,beautiful women, all of them. I will be thinking healing thoughts for the amazing Elena.

  21. I am so sorry to hear about Elena. What a beautiful, compassionate and caring person. I admire people like that. She was so concerned about Melese getting breastmilk that she went to such great lengths to find it. That's passion!

    I tried breastfeeding Biruk. He'd latch on every day and take a suck and then pull off. I was six months pregnant when we picked him up from Ethiopia. The day Landon (his little brother) was born and I had this abundance of breastmilk Biruk (8 1/2 months at the time) completely refused it. He had formula but it would have been wonderful to have had the nursing relationship with him. Sometimes things don't go the way we plan and things aren't always in our control.

    Your children are beautiful and you both are doing a wonderful job! This story you shared is beautiful. Sorry again about your dear friend.


  22. my thoughts and prayers are with Elena. Why. i'm left with that question. there are so many whys. aren't women amazing. i think if you can get breast milk than it is good. good. simple. beautiful.

    Q's swimming teacher donated her breastmilk to some organization. i wish i had known about that when i was breast feeding.

    this post is so simple and beautiful and surprising and...

  23. We must be long lost soul sisters ;)
    I absolutely intended to breast feed and had the medication and all. But somehow i wasnt expecting a referral when it happened, and then i didnt start the meds, and then we were in Ethiopia and then home and it was a huge whirl wind. I wish i had. If the sun ever shines again in any sort of prosperity allowing us to be back in ethiopia adopting, i have promised myself i will breast feed. regardless of who is and who isnt supporting me. i wont let that be a factor again. thank fully im blessed with a healthy little guy. i have always been thankful that i breast fed kiana until she was 18 months. it was a wonderful bonding time.
    I am so sorry to hear of your amazing friends outragiously unfair diagnosis. Her kindness will come full circle....

  24. You brought tears to my eyes. I'm praying for Elena and her family.

  25. Beautiful, as always. Blessings to Elena and her lovely family. Blessings to you, Julie, and thank you for inspiring so many of us to be better people.

  26. I just read this out loud to Ted. Cried. Again. It's been that kind of day, Julie. Wish you were closer.

  27. Sending positive thoughts to Elena and family.

  28. What a beautiful and heartbreaking post, all at once. I am so devastated for Elena's family, and so touched for all she has done for your family. I will keep them in my thoughts.

  29. Just found your blog today (I think through someone's mention of you on Swistle's blog comments). This is a beautiful post. I feel compelled to read your whole story tonight (I doubt I'll make it, but know that I desire to hear it all).

  30. Thank you so much for this. In the middle of feeling my heart fragmenting into a million little pieces, I read this post and feel the love and hope given, and the difference that our Elena made in your life. This blog (and "grown in my heart's) mean more to me than any of the obits I've read. With gratitude, Sylvia (Elena's sister.)

  31. Elena's love continues through the love of her sister Lourdes with Eats On Feets, a global group on facebook helping woman to share their milk as Elena would have.

  32. So much compassion. I'm honored to have even read this. Blessings to you all, and sending strength to Elena.

  33. This is 3/7/2011, five months after
    Elena died. Elena, my daughter, was an extraordinary woman, very strong and kind and compassionate towards others. Also, Staci is kind and wonderful. Without knowing us she picked us up at the airport, lent us her car, and opened her house to us so we had a place to stay after Elena died. Elena also had to borrow breastmilk to tandem nurse Ivy, her daughter. I am glad that Melese has done so well and that Nina was able to supply the milk.

    Elena's Mom