Columbia, SC (WLTX) -- At first glance, the NICU at Palmetto Health Richland looks like any other hospital.
Dozens of beds, the usual machines, and medications to support some of the tiniest lives brought into the world.
But the nursing staff is saving the lives of these babies in a new way.
"It has antibodies to protect that baby, which formula could never do," said Lactation Specialist Kim Reaser.
Many of these pre-term babies are given the milk of another mother, donated by complete strangers across the country
The hospital encourages every mom to breastfeed, but in some cases it's not possible--that's when donor milk becomes important.
"In situations where we have a mother who has a drug addiction, is on alcohol, babies that are being adopted, babies where DSS may be involved," Reaser added.
Many of the babies here are simply fighting to stay alive. Their bodies are still developing in this critical stage, and need certain nutrients that formula could never provide.
"We can weekly run a cost of anywhere from 6,000 to up over 50,000 dollars," said Reaser.
It may seem like a high price-tag-but the hospital says the benefit of the donor milk far out-weights the cost.
Cow's milk is harder for premature babies to digest, and can cause them to develop necrotizing enterocolitis. The disorder rots their intestines, leading to hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills and even death.
"Working up here, I see the difference the breast milk has," Jennifer Waldrop said.
As a NICU nurse, Jennifer Waldrop knows first-hand how much the donations help. It's what made her donate when she had an oversupply with her second son.
"They'll send you coolers," Jennifer said. "You ship your milk in and they pay for everything."
Donors are not paid and will never know who receives their donation.
But for Jennifer, it's still worth it.
"I wish there was a way to track and see where it went, who got it, but there's no way to know," she said. "It's a good feeling knowing that I may have possibly helped save some baby's life somewhere."
It's a newer program that has many critics still wondering is it even safe-- giving milk from a complete stranger to a vulnerable baby???
Kim Reaser says that shouldn't even be an issue.
"Why would we think that cow's milk is better for a baby than something that comes from a human?" said Reaser. "Really...we just have a mindset that says that that sounds better than something that comes from a human."
There have several ads on social media and sites like craigslist...with people trying to trade their breast milk directly. Doctors do warn against this. The donor milk used in hospitals is all tested, and pasteurized before being shipped out-- to ensure that it is not harmful for the babies.
Click here to find a milk bank near you.