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Breastfeeding for Survival

Jennifer Noll
Pass Christian MS USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No. 3, May-June 2006, pp. 114-115.

Sometimes breastfeeding isn't about the warm fuzzies, the cuddling up, and looking into each others' eyes. Sometimes breastfeeding is about survival, about whether or not your baby is going to live to see that first birthday. That statement may seem overly dramatic to some, but to those of us who survived Hurricane Katrina, it is fact. I'll also warn people. My story will be difficult to read.

On August 27, 2005, I awoke to get my children ready to attend the World Breastfeeding Celebration in Biloxi, Mississippi, USA. As always, I watched the news as I dressed and fed my children, three-year-old Betsy, and Aisling, almost six months. What I saw frightened me. Hurricane Katrina was in the Gulf of Mexico, churning her way to my Pass Christian, Mississippi home. I knew then that we would have to evacuate. Our home is in a flood zone, and although we've never flooded, we evacuate for every hurricane that comes ashore. The storm was the main topic of conversation during the WBW event and at lunch afterward. Although we were all concerned, we had no idea how bad it would be.

The next day, my husband and I loaded our children, a few changes of clothes, and the family photographs into the back of our van. My parents along with my sister, her husband, and their 10-month-old, evacuated with us to a relative's home over 100 miles inland. On August 29, we waited out the storm there. Even as far inland as we were, I watched as trees were blown down in the yard, and we watched news reports until the power went out. The next morning we made our slow, painful way back to Pass Christian to see what remained of our homes. The trip back was difficult. We had to take the back country roads home, as the main thoroughfares were blocked off to all but emergency vehicles. We frequently had to stop and wait for men with chainsaws to cut through the trees that were lying across the roads. During these stops, I would nurse Aisling and comfort Betsy, who was alarmed at what she was seeing from the car windows. We had to skirt fallen power lines, and as we came nearer to the coast, we had to find alternate routes because there would be a house or a pile of cars blocking the way. As we came into the subdivision where we lived, we had to drive around a bit to find a way in. The entrance was blocked by someone's home that had washed from its foundation and into the road. Our actual neighborhood did not seem to be too badly damaged. The streets were muddy and debris strewn, but most of the houses still had their roofs.

However, as we went farther into our neighborhood, we saw things that were quite alarming. A boat had settled into a driveway. Household items were on the roofs of houses. Cars rested in places I knew they should not be left. I held my breath as we pulled in our driveway. My husband's truck was three feet to the left from where he had parked it. Our front door had been blown off the house by the force of rushing water. It quickly became apparent that the water had actually gone over the top of our roof. Our ceilings had collapsed, and all we had left was the frame of our home. I was explaining to my daughter, who was still in the car, that our house was "broken" and would have to be fixed when my sister came walking up my driveway. We were both crying when I told her that it was okay, I hated the wallpaper in the bathroom anyway. "Oh," she said, "Did you hate the bathroom, too?" We had started to laugh at the situation when I saw my neighbor, Geno, running up the street.

She was crying so hard that I had a difficult time understanding her, and it took a few minutes before it became clear what she was trying to say. She had returned from her job to find her husband and three-year-old son drowned in their home. We couldn't call for help. Our cell phones no longer worked. We actually had to leave Geno holding her son wrapped in a towel while we went to get her help. It was the next day when help arrived.

On August 31, we left my parents' home, which had sustained only minor damage, and went back to our house to try to salvage some items. I left my children with my mother for the two hours that I would be gone. I actually enjoyed the air conditioning in the car. It was a respite from the 95 degree heat we had been enduring. When we got to our house, we found our 78-year-old neighbor, who had not had water or food for three days. He had survived in the second story of his home, where he had stood in five feet of water for 12 hours. We gave him what food and water we had with us and did our best to talk him into leaving his destroyed home to go to a shelter. I also had to tell the coroner which homes to check for bodies on my street, as I knew who had stayed and who had evacuated. I watched as five of my friends and neighbors were carried from their homes in body bags and placed in the back of a pickup truck. It was at that point that my husband and I decided to take our children and make the long scary trip to stay with family in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. We left with a half tank of gas and no idea where we would be able to get more. We were ultimately able to find gas in Alabama and arrived in Nashville the next day, where we stayed for 10 days until power and water service was restored.

Where might the importance of breastfeeding babies and toddlers come in at this point? It helped us survive. My exclusively breastfed baby stayed hydrated in the sweltering heat. I did not have to worry about mixing formula at a time when we could not shower or flush a toilet. Also, as we slept in a pop-up camper in the yard, my daughter's rhythmic sucking soothed me throughout the night. My three-year-old decided to nurse again for that brief time, and we were able to share that comfort. Later, my friends from La Leche League told me their stories, just as dramatic as my own. One woman even nursed two babies who were not her own, as their mothers were unable to find formula in those first days after the storm. How much better can breastfeeding get than that?

When we returned from Nashville and began picking up the pieces of our lives, we found that our La Leche League members from all over the country had come to our rescue. Those of us who had sustained great losses received food, clothing, shoes, medicine, toys, and even items like strollers, car seats, and cosleepers. I'm grateful that I made the decision to breastfeed and join La Leche League. An already horrible situation would have been even worse otherwise. Thank you, my sisters. Thank you for your thoughts, your prayers, and your help.

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