KANSAS CITY, Mo. —As she was getting ready to leave the hospital with her baby, a tearful Jennifer Robinson knew how to measure generosity.
All she had to do was turn and look at Nicole Hendrix, the woman who had helped the premature baby, Max, to thrive against the odds.
Hendrix had donated her breast milk — gallons of it — to Max after his mother couldn't make any more.
It was a personal gift the hospital had never seen before.
Hendrix had been saving frozen milk for her own preemie daughter, Lillian. Lilli, as she was called, died before she could get much more than a little of it.
After multiple surgeries and four anxious months in intensive care, Max finally was healthy enough Tuesday to leave Overland Park Regional Medical Center. He weighed a substantial 8 pounds, 13 ounces.
Hendrix was there to see him off.
"It makes me feel that something good can come out of something bad," she said.
Robinson said she was overwhelmed by Hendrix's generosity.
"With so much going on with their lives they would think of us," she said. "It was like they gave him an organ, something that could save his life."
Overland Park Regional neonatologist Kathleen Weatherstone said the donation played a role in keeping Max alive.
Max was born on April 16, four months premature. Lillian was born March 4, also four months early.
Both babies suffered from a condition called necrotizing enterocolitis, where blood circulation was cut off to portions of their bowel. It occurs most commonly among extremely premature infants.
Breast milk is thought to be protective against necrotizing enterocolitis, Weatherstone said. And it's the best-tolerated milk for infants recovering from the condition.
Often it's difficult, though, for mothers of preemies to give their babies milk. Either their body isn't ready to produce milk or the stress of dealing with a critically ill child keeps the milk from flowing.
At first, Robinson, 41, was able to provide Max with breast milk. She had breast-fed her two other children. But she soon began to run dry.
"It was really frustrating," Robinson said. "As a mom, breast milk was one of the only things I could give him to help him."
Robinson searched for breast milk banks that provide babies with milk from donor mothers. But insurance plans don't always cover the charges. She calculated that it could cost thousands of dollars per month.
That's when Robinson and Hendrix's stories began to intertwine.
'This was a no-brainer'
Every three hours every day — at home, at work, even at church — Hendrix had been faithfully pumping her breast milk and freezing it, anticipating the day when Lillian would need it.
"The nurses every day said keep going," said Hendrix, 29. "It wasn't fun, but I did it."
For 10 weeks, she saved her milk. So much milk that the Hendrixes had to buy a freezer to keep in the garage of their Kansas City home.
But Lillian's persistent medical problems gave her few opportunities to take any of her mother's milk. Her condition became so serious she had to be transferred to the University of Kansas Hospital, where she died in May.
After Lillian's death, Hendrix went back to Overland Park Regional to pick up things left behind. She thought of the breast milk at home in the freezer.
"It would have made me sick to throw it out," she said.
Hendrix asked a nurse in the intensive care unit if she could donate her milk. Word got back to the nurse that Robinson's baby needed breast milk, and the nurse told Hendrix.
"This was a no-brainer," Hendrix said. "I feel I would have regretted it if I didn't. I feel I've given meaning to my daughter's life, if this can help save Max."
The hospital had never arranged to have a mother donate milk to one of its patients. Doctors insisted that Hendrix be tested for HIV, hepatitis and other infections before Max could have her milk.
When Hendrix turned the milk over to Robinson, it filled a large rolling cooler and three small plastic foam coolers.
Robinson brought plastic bags of frozen milk to the hospital for the nurses to defrost and give to Max.
Before sharing the milk, the Robinsons and Hendrixes barely knew each other.
Hendrix recalls that she and her husband, Shannon, ran into Robinson and her husband, Troy, in the parents' room at the hospital.
"They were worried, and we were listening," she said. "Their son was going through a lot of what we went through."
Now the families have become friends. Hendrix visited Max several times in the hospital and was one of the first people to get to hold him.
"We instantly felt we had a connection," Robinson said. "If it weren't for Lilli, Max would not be here. Her little life made a huge impact on his. Someday, he'll know about Lilli and how selfless her mother was."