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#Austin Runners Provide Life Line for Harvey’s Smallest Victims

Question: What do helicopters, flood victims, and medically-necessary breast milk have in common?

Answer: Austin runners.

Harvey Hits Houston Hospitals

Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Friday, Aug. 25, bringing a wide swath of destruction to Texas’ coastal cities. Just four days later, the Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin was faced with a crucial problem: four Houston-area hospitals desperately needed donated human breast milk.

Opening of the new Mother's Milk Bank at Austin location.
The new Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin opened in July 2016. Photo courtesy of Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin.

At Tuesday’s Board of Directors meeting, Executive Director Kim Updegrove explained the increased demand. While Mother’s Milk Bank of North Texas in Ft. Worth had picked up evacuees’ needs, the Austin facility would cover Houston-area hospitals. Due to flooding, mothers couldn’t reach babies in NICU (neonatal intensive care units) and power outages had reduced stock. Donated human breast milk is usually delivered by Federal Express or other courier service, but roads were awash and routes impassable.

Mother's Milk Bank of Austin volunteer works with donated human breast milk during Amplify Austin fundraiser.
Volunteering during Amplify Austin fundraiser. Photo courtesy of Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin.

Board member Julia Weatherby listened, and she, Updegrove, and fellow BOD members weighed delivery solutions. Boats? Too problematic. Helicopters? Hospitals have helipads, so flying would be best…but Updegrove hadn’t found an Austin-based pilot with access to a helicopter. There was another problem: how the nonprofit would fund the emergency mission.

“The situation was becoming critical,” Weatherby explained. “The process of acquiring donor milk is very similar to donor blood. For inpatient recipients, the hospital manages their supply (they order in a big batch, usually not specific for a patient)…A small percentage [of donated milk] goes to outpatients, babies who are healthy enough to be at home but still need donated breast milk because they’re not healthy enough.”

Why not substitute formula? Those vulnerable babies have no choice. That donated human breast milk is medically prescribed.

Without appropriate nutrition–babies at different stages require breast milk with different components–these tiny patients couldn’t thrive. Without breast milk, they’re at risk of developing serious disease, like NEC (necrotizing enterocolitis, which damages the intestinal tract).

For these Houston-area babies, this milk delivery was a matter of life and death.

The clock was ticking.

Austin Runners to Babies’ Rescue

Weatherby pondered the Mother’s Milk Bank’s need. How could she help?

Julia Weatherby and Michelle Garel at Mother's Milk Bank at Austin function
Julia Weatherby (right) with Michelle Garel, her friend and fellow runner and Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin volunteer and committee member. Photo courtesy of Julia Weatherby

Now, members of Austin’s running community know Weatherby well. She’s a popular figure who’s combined her love of travel, running, triathlon, and technology in a variety of community services. Naturally, Weatherby thought to tap her local resources–perhaps a pilot friends was available? Some six of her buddies fly small or commercial planes.

Being social media-inclined, Weatherby turned to Facebook.

“I thought about tagging [my pilot friends],” said Weatherby. “But then I decided, tonight, I’ll just send a generic message and talk to people tomorrow.” She posted a simple status update at 8:18 p.m.

At 10:05 p.m., Jill Beardsley was checking Facebook from her bed and breakfast on Lake Bemidji in Minnesota. Beardsley and her husband Dick (that’s right; Dick Beardsley, the famous American marathoner) moved to Minnesota a few years back, but they’re near and dear to the Austin running community and maintain those friendships. She saw Weatherby’s post and immediately thought of more Austin running royalty: John Conley.

“I know John is taking flying lessons. I figured he would know someone or, at the very least, someone who could take it one step further to finding [a pilot],” Beardsley modestly commented. She tagged her good buddy (and John’s wife) Stacey Conley.

The Conleys have been pillars of the Austin-area running scene. Through their company Conley Sports, they managed many classic road races and events before retiring in 2016. Stacey and Jill are fast friends and past running partners. At 11:19 p.m., Stacey responded to Jill’s tag.

Screenshot of Facebook request for helicopter pilot for Mother's Milk Bank delivery

Stacey connected Weatherby with Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services Special Operations Captain Steve Bush. Bush, the owner of Lone Star Helicopters LLC.,had helped the Conleys for years with the Austin Marathon support.

Steve Bush with his helicopter and delivery of breast milk from Mother's Milk Bank of Austin
Captain Steve Bush of Lone Star Helicopters with his precious cargo. Photo courtesy of Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin.

“I gave Julia Steve’s number and thought, if it’s meant to happen, it will. I was thrilled when I heard Steve would help out. I assumed he’d be swamped with other rescue efforts and wouldn’t have any free time at all (which, for all I know, is probably true),” Stacey explained.

“Out of all the volunteering and donating I’ve done, this is by far the most satisfying.”

Less than 24 hours after Weatherby’s post, Bush and his team had delivered those crucial life-saving and health-enhancing milk deliveries.

[Want photos, video, and accounts of the actual flight? See these Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services Facebook write-ups.]

It wasn’t until another running friend posted–“Love you and our friends!”–that Weatherby made the connection. Her Austin running community had come through for those babies and their families.

“I never even got to my pilot friends,” Weatherby mused with a smile. “It’s funny because everybody’s so humble (‘All I did was post a message’) but having that link is so crucial to getting what you need.”

Volunteers and Lone Star Helicopter delivering donated human breast milk to Houston hospitals flooded by Harvey.
Evening milk delivery, thanks to volunteers and Lone Star Helicopter. Photo courtesy of Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin.

How Can You Help?

Donate breast milk or money to Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin

Volunteer in the Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin office, lab, and outreach events

Share your donor and recipient stories on the Mother’s Milk Bank at Austin blog

 

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Posted in Happenings on September 2, 2017

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