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.