A life dedicated to tiny heroes

Dr Gillian Opie is one of Australia’s most acclaimed neonatal pediatricians, a remarkable woman who has dedicated her life to helping premature babies after watching her own baby sister struggle with a near-fatal illness.

Gillian is the head of Mercy Health Breastmilk Bank, Victoria’s only breastmilk bank, non-executive director of not for profit Ready Step Grow and a member of the editorial board of the International Breastfeeding Journal.

In this week’s Success Story, Gillian shares with Catherine Robson the profound impact nutrition has in the very early stages of life, the importance of breast milk banks but why she’d like to see them become redundant.

In 1996 Gillian took an unusual step for a neonatal pediatrician, she also became an accredited lactation consultant, commonly the domain of nurses and midwives, not doctors.

“It wasn’t something we’d learnt terribly much about in medical school. I wanted to understand it better and therefore have a position on it, to be able to explain to mothers how much we needed their buy-in in caring for their child. I thought that was really important,” explains Gillian.

It was a move that surprised her peers, many not seeing it necessary to take the extra step to become qualified. Gillian disagrees believing the qualification has proved extremely valuable in giving her credibility when dealing with lactation consultants, largely professional nurses, allowing her to present a pediatrician’s viewpoint in cases where breastfeeding may not be the absolute answer.

Understanding the crucial role breast milk plays in the nutritional requirements of preemie babies, Gillian spearheaded the establishment of the Mercy Health Breastmilk Bank. The only breast milk bank in Victoria, it provides breast milk to the most vulnerable, premature babies whose mothers are unable to produce milk.

While wet nursing has been around for generations and breast milk banks may not be a revolutionary concept, they were no longer used when it was discovered HIV is transmitted via breast milk.

“In the post-HIV era milk banks need to be more rigorous in their process of screening donor mothers and then handling the breast milk itself.”

Currently, only women who have given birth at Mercy Health are eligible to donate during the first 6 months of their lactation period. The milk is screened in a process similar to donating blood. Tests screen for HIV, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Syphilis and a relatively unknown virus called HTLV that can result in lymphoma years down the track.

“It’s also really important that we have a conversation with the women, that they themselves are healthy, not taking any significant medications and that their own child is thriving and being exclusively breastfed”.

Gillian praises the donor mothers for supplying such a life-changing gift. Breast milk contains essential probiotics, antibodies, long chain fatty acids essential for brain development and small, special sugars called human milk oligosaccharides which are crucial nutrients for good bacteria.

“Every mother of our recipient babies would say they are so grateful for those women who take the time to be breast milk donors. Our breast milk donors are just amazing women. Recently one woman has donated us over 120 litres of milk as well as supporting her own premature baby. It’s just phenomenal”.

Following donation, the milk is pasteurized and frozen until it is distributed to a baby in need. Since the Breastmilk Bank’s opening in February 2011, thousands of litres of milk have been donated by 260 donor mothers, helping around 560 premature babies.

Gillian’s commitment to helping babies get their best start in life extends beyond the hospital, she’s also the acting Chairperson and Non-Executive Director of not for profit Ready Step Grow.  The program gives parents of preterm children a ‘safe place to land’, a connected community and access to professional expertise when they leave the hospital nursery.

“You just want to keep them close, keep them safe, wrapped them in cotton wool and just let them grow, but in fact, they need to experience the world. Ready Step Grow provides a safe learning program for both the babies and their parents.”

Giving so much of her life supporting preemie babies and their families, how does this dedicated powerhouse of the neonatal world find the time to relax?

“I don’t have children of my own, I’ve just never found the right Y chromosome,” she laughs. “My dog is a big switch off for me. There’s a very strong community of dog walkers, we get out to the park with our dogs and none of us really talk about work. We talk about lots of other things that are going on in the community. I love music, I love the theatre, so that’s also a distraction for me,” says Gillian.



Ready Step Grow

Mercy Hospital Breastmilk Bank