By Regina Roig-Romero
Every year at about this time, I think of Hurricane Andrew. Sometimes I wonder why. Twenty-one years ago, I was inside the tropical buzz saw known as Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that hit South Florida in August of 1992. When a storm of that strength is just outside your door, the smartest thing you can do is suppress your curiosity and not look out your windows, which hopefully are boarded up anyway. And we were smart, so from that frightening night what I mostly remember are the sounds – the storm, whistling like an oncoming train about to roll full-speed ahead into the closet we were hiding in, and the knowledgeable, calming voice of meteorologist Bryan Norcross on my radio. I remember the darkness. And I remember my 16 month old daughter nursing….and throwing up.
But Hurricane Andrew wasn’t just a personal milestone in my life; it was also a professional one, my first serious venture into my future as a public health IBCLC. That night was all about Andrew’s sounds, but from the moment the sun returned to our skies, its sights took over. South Florida – indeed the country – could not remember when the nation had last witnessed such devastation from a natural disaster. Three of our five La Leche League (LLL) Leaders lost their homes to Andrew. I – a newcomer to breastfeeding advocacy, having only become a Leader one year earlier – was one of the two that didn’t. Once we were all finally able to see what had just happened to our city, those of us in LLL were immediately panic-stricken at the prospect of the city’s newborns being fed infant formula under such conditions – no water, no electricity, no refrigeration, no grocery stores. It was as if overnight we had all been transported to a 3rd world country and were now living inside of Gabrielle Palmer’s book, The Politics of Breastfeeding. “Well, not in my town, and not on my watch,” I thought, so I had an idea – take all of the money that LLL folks from around the country had donated to us, spend it buying copies of the Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, and then give them away for free in South Miami-Dade where the storm had hit worst.
It seemed like a great idea and so we bought the books and packed them – along with our idealism and our kids – into our cars and set out for “tent city”: the huge collection of tents in Homestead where many of the instantly-homeless were now living. And that is when I came across the most enduring sight, for me, of Hurricane Andrew: a huge green tent full of infant formula, can after can after can of it piled high and being given away. Our books seemed so tiny and unimportant by comparison! Just as defining for me was the virtual wall of disinterest that we were met with when we tried to explain to the powers that be that after a disaster breastfeeding is even more important than it is before it. But our passion and idealism fell on deaf ears; I felt afterwards like we’d failed miserably to make a difference.
My idealism died in tent city; two things replaced it: the conviction that the most important thing we can do to promote breastfeeding after any disaster is to normalize breastfeeding *before* it, and an intense and mercilessly unrelenting desire to make a difference that drives me to this very day. Twenty-one years later I am an IBCLC with 17 years’ experience as a Lactation Consultant for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, a public health professional on the brink of graduating with a Master’s degree in Public Health, a member of the National WIC Association’s Breastfeeding Promotion Committee, and a Board Director of the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners. I neither imagined nor planned any of it. But it all began with Andrew – with the whistling wind, the frustration of failure, the implacability of apathy, and a tent full of formula. No wonder I still think about that hurricane…..
Regina Maria Roig-Romero was a La Leche League Leader for several years beginning in 1991, and is currently the Senior Lactation Consultant for the WIC breastfeeding program in Miami, Florida. She has assisted as an IBCLC in the program’s creation, development and leadership since its inception in 1996; in 2011-2012 she led the implementation of a worksite lactation support program at the health department in Miami. From 2002-2011, she successfully mentored thirteen Peer Counselors to become IBCLCs. In 2011, Regina served as an invited member of the USDA Food & Nutrition Service Expert Panel on the revision of the Loving Support Peer Counselor Training curricula. Her major speaking engagements include: the National WIC Association’s (NWA) Washington Leadership Conference & Breastfeeding Summit in 2010, two Spanish-language sessions at the 2012 ILCA annual conference, and an upcoming presentation on perceived milk insufficiency at the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting in November 2013. Regina was appointed to the NWA Breastfeeding Promotion Committee in August 2012, and was elected to the Board of Directors of the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners in September 2012. In December 2013, she will graduate with a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention from Florida International University.
Oh my word, Regina…. what heartbreak you must have had to be met with ignorance and indifference in the face of your big-hearted offer to help. I have the greatest respect for you turning this around into a proactive approach. I’m sorry for the babies who were harmed by formula handouts 21 years ago, but in a way they made it possible for greater good to come from your work.
Best wishes from the third world where I saw two cases of kwashiorkor last month…formula fed babies whose mothers ran out of money…..:-(
Jacquie Nutt IBCLC
Thank you, Jacquie 🙂 You’ve touched on the point I was trying to make, which is that even the events in our careers that feel bad can bear good fruit in the long run (the “legacy” in the title), something which I hope encourages the readers of this essay since we are all often confronted with seemingly negative professional experiences. As to you: kwashiorkor? How horrifying. You have my utmost sympathy and respect!
Hear, hear, Jacquie … and kudos to you, Regina. You are something of a force of nature yourself … and the thousands of women whose lives you’ve touched will attest to that!
Thank you, Liz 🙂 Very kind of you!
Thanks for this beautifully written post from the heart, Regina. It touched me and immediately brought me back to my own experience with Hurricane Katrina, which hit our Mississippi Gulf Coast just 8 years ago last week. I was on the Coast on this 8th anniversary of the storm, and as I drove along Highway 90 last week observing the concrete slabs where homes and businesses once stood, I was reminded again of just how defining an event like this can be. I too experienced the frustration of formula donations (as a relief worker volunteer, I was asked to help unload a truck full of formula donations from across the world, many in languages other than English. Sadly, very few women were breastfeeding or interested in it, and I realized too, Regina, that we must normalize breastfeeding before the storms come. One of the most positive things I saw on my drive along the Coast last week was a series of incredibly beautiful sculptures created by a local artist from the shattered remnants of the stately trees that used to line the coast. A majestic eagle…a playful dolphin…a confident pelican…and many, many more. A true sign of hope that even in the mist of destruction, good can come. The way you turned your experience into powerful advocacy for families is certainly evidence of that! Thanks again for sharing these beautiful thoughts.
Cathy, you’re welcome…and thank you 🙂 It has often struck me as odd, since Andrew, that it took such a defining and dramatic event to illustrate to me what in hindsight seemed patently obvious, namely that if breastfeeding doesn’t feel normal to a woman before a disaster hits, it certainly isn’t going to feel normal to her once she has suddenly been bereft of her roof, her home, or her water etc. In the midst of such a crisis, women will find it very difficult to learn a new behavior such as breastfeeding. So ever since then I have felt that everything we do in our profession – everything! – (and especially the seemingly-little things like really *listening* to our clients) in the long run serves to promote breastfeeding after an emergency….because it normalizes it. And over the past 21 years, that one little thought has often given me hope about the ultimate impact of my work….
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Amazing and so very proud to have a Latina Cuban leader representing!
It is an honor to serve. Thank you…y gracias!