WILLOWICK, Ohio — When Dr. Jessica Madden saw the empty shelves last week, she knew she had to be doing more.
"Just a little over a week ago, just out of curiosity, I went down the formula aisle," she recalls. "That was a moment where I was just like, 'Um, this is a huge problem,' and, 'Oh my gosh,' and I just started talking locally to find out over the next day what was going on, and that was how this all started."
What started within Madden's own network of friends and colleagues just eight days ago has launched into a local baby formula exchange for Northeast Ohio. The Cleveland pediatrician and lactation consultant with Primrose Newborn Care is also a mom to four. Her oldest, now-16-year-old Grace, required specialized formula as a baby.
"She had the most severe milk soy protein in intolerance out there," Madden remembered, "so when she was an infant, she was on a very specialized formula called Neocate."
It was expensive, but covered under their insurance. When Grace no longer needed it, Madden donated the rest, and quickly saw the need.
"I keep on going back to that," she says, years later. "If I had not had Neocate for grace, I don't know how she would've survived. I think she would've ended up in the hospital on IV nutrition."
The nationwide formula shortage has led to hospitalizations, but thankfully, neither UH Rainbow Babies and Children's or Akron Children's Hospital has seen any locally.
"I don't want any family to ever be in that situation, so I put out a plea for help," Madden told 3News.
Since the weekend, Madden has collected some 300 cans, and is just as quickly doling them out.
"We're rapidly growing, so I'm getting more and more help," she said. "I'm vetting where every formula donation comes in, I've inspected every canister, and I've made sure [it] didn't recalled and that it's factory sealed."
"It will bring you to a Google form where you fill in your basic information, and it is all kept confidential," she added. "About 20 family and friends are helping me pick up formula from donors and then distribute formula based on where in Northeast Ohio they live. We still have to get to Norwalk and Ashtabula; those are about the furthest right now!"
Madden's heard from out-of-state moms, too, directing them to some national databases trying to do the same.
"This is a band-aid for a large problem," she said.
The federal government is using the Defense Production Act to require suppliers of key formula ingredients to prioritize delivery to formula manufacturers, and President Joe Biden is also ordering military planes to bring in formula from other countries. The House of Representatives passed two bills Wednesday, one to provide emergency FDA funding and another the Senate also signed off on Thursday to ensure WIC benefits for low-income families continue. The closed Abbott factory in Michigan is also on pace to come back online in one to two weeks time.
"I think our best case scenario right now is probably a rough six to eight weeks, or so," Madden stated. "Maybe a little bit longer.
"I'm encouraging moms who are pregnant—who are still expecting, who are going be delivering within this timeframe—even if they hadn't thought about breastfeeding to strongly consider doing so, but this is not a time for us to put pressure on moms who are formula feeding their babies or to make them feel bad, that breastfeeding isn't an option right now. I think is harmful and isn't going to help anything."
If you can find formula, Madden asks that parents try to share the love and buy only a two or three-week supply, believing that no one needs to stockpile six months' worth right now.
"If you have a healthy, normal baby, to be as flexible as possible with what type of formulas," she said.
Her website also includes a database of formula details to help parents find appropriate alternatives.
"If you need formula, ask for help," she added. "People will drive. They want to help you, they want to help feed your baby. They'll go for you if you need that, if you have transportation barriers."
Madden is currently working on on community drop-off and pick-up locations to launch soon. One partner, Dr. Deanna Barry's office in Bath, is already accepting drop offs. They're also collecting donations to help families offset the price of expensive hypoallergenic formulas for those infants where it's the only option.
"I think this really is a time that we need our narrative to be that we're going to work together to make sure all babies are fed," Madden said.