A grieving mum's 'liquid miracle' gift for others

Debra Rolfe, with some of the 43 litres of milk she has donated.
Debra Rolfe, with some of the 43 litres of milk she has donated. Photo: Harrison Saragossi

Debra Rolfe's story is one of unimaginable heartache and inspiring generosity.

The 30-year-old Caboolture mum has single-handedly stocked Queensland's first Milk Bank for premature babies, using 43 litres of breast milk meant for her own son.

Bradley was born in June at 27 weeks, weighing just 852 grams. He suffered chronic lung problems, and died in early September, aged only 94 days.

Debra Rolfe and her husband Nick, with Bradley, who was just 94 days old when he died.
Debra Rolfe and her husband Nick, with Bradley, who was just 94 days old when he died. 

Freezers for the Milk Bank, which had been in the planning for five years, arrived at the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital on that same day.

As Ms Rolfe and her husband Nick grieved for their tiny son, the RBWH's deputy director of neonatology, Pieter Koorts, approached her about donating her astonishing stock of breast milk.

"It wasn't a question of 'if'. What was I going to do with all that milk? I couldn't feed my baby. It would've gone in the bin,” said Ms Rolfe after today's official launch.

She said she had sacrificed sleep to express milk every two to three hours for Bradley, and was pleased it would be used.

“It's going to save lives. That's the only good thing to come out of Bradley's passing,” Ms Rolfe said.

Dr Koorts said breast milk boosted babies' immune systems and kept infection at bay, but not every woman could produce it in volumes similar to Ms Rolfe. That's where the Milk Bank comes in.


“We aim to support mothers through this difficult time where they can't express enough milk for their infants, especially the really little pre-term ones, to supplement their supply through the use of the donor milk,” he said.

Each year, about 8 per cent of babies born in Australia are delivered before 37 weeks gestation. But that rate is increasing, and Dr Koorts said services like the Queensland Milk Bank were key to improving pre-term bubs' chances of survival.

The facility is only the third in Australia, after Perth and Melbourne, and will cater for women across the state and from northern New South Wales.

Health Minister Lawrence Springborg said his own grandmother had expressed milk for another new mother while in Inglewood Hospital – a practice that would have been relatively common in the past.

Mr Springborg said the Milk Bank provides sustenance that's been rigorously tested and pasteurised.

“This is about elevating donor breast milk and the opportunities to a whole range of women,” he said.

Already, two more donors have been approved, with another two women currently undergoing screening.

Ms Rolfe hoped more women with excess milk production would consider donating what she called their “liquid miracle”.

“If other mothers can do it and keep it going, they'll save hundreds of babies,” she said.