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Mastitis at Midnight

Heather Herbert
Cumming GA USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 4, July-August 2007, pp. 161

My breastfeeding history is varied. I'm currently tandem nursing my second and third children, have nursed through four pregnancies (two resulted in births, two in miscarriages), and I've been nursing for five years, nine months, and two days continuously since my first child was born. Challenges have included primary engorgement that gave me breasts bigger than my children's heads, a premie who couldn't suck, a baby who wouldn't stop sucking, toddler teeth and chewing, toddlers who like to look around without letting go, and a son who liked to lift my shirt in the supermarket. I've nursed in three countries, at supermarkets, in malls, during funerals, and across the entire Atlantic (yes, the whole thing) during a flight. But I still owe huge thanks to veterinarian and author, James Herriott, for saving me on one desperate night.

After having breastfed my first child for a year, I felt lucky. I had never had a plugged duct, cracked nipple, thrush, or bleb. But one night I came down with what seemed to be the worst dose of flu I'd had in years. My temperature skyrocketed to nearly 105 degrees, I was cold, shivering uncontrollably, and my skin hurt. I went upstairs to lie down and as I got undressed I realized that my left breast was incredibly painful. Upon feeling it, I discovered a six-inch long mass on the outside of my breast, and it was hot and hard. Mastitis! And it was midnight with nothing to do but either sit it out or go to our local hospital's "Accident and Emergency" department -- the British equivalent to the emergency room.

I remembered from my breastfeeding books that if a woman develops mastitis, she is supposed to try to empty the breast by having her child feed on that side. I presented my left breast to my daughter, who resolutely refused to even latch on. She did not want to nurse and, in true toddler fashion, she let me know I couldn't make her. Feverishly, I tried to think of something else I could do to get through the night. And what I remembered was a story from James Herriott, author of All Creatures Great and Small, about a farmer who had a cow with mastitis. In "the early days," they didn't have antibiotics, and so the most common treatment was to remove the cow's affected teat and quarter. Well, that wasn't an option for me, thanks! But I also remembered the story of a farmer who, when faced with a prize cow who had mastitis, was told by James Herriott that if he milked that cow frequently it might recover spontaneously. So, I grabbed my manual pump and sat down.

Four solid hours of pumping later, I suddenly had a let down. My breast deflated before my eyes, the hard mass disappeared, and I literally felt my fever drain from me. I went from 104.8 degrees to a normal temperature in a half hour.

I'm sure most of you are wincing at the thought of pumping for four hours. I did suffer from a massive blister -- but it was on my hand. My breast was slightly sore for the next week where the mass had been, but otherwise I didn't have any ill effects, and didn't require antibiotics as the symptoms were entirely gone. I've never had mastitis since, but if it happens again and I can't get to a doctor, I'll tip my hat to my favorite veterinarian.

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