The Mame Project (Project Breastfeed): Zilda’s Story

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1996: Zilda Santos was 30 and lived in a one bedroom apartment with no bathroom together with her husband and her three children when she decided to study nursing.  This was a decision that changed the lives of thousands of people living in the Rio de Janeiro slums.

Zilda’s Santos, Nurse Technican, Activist and Creator of the Mame Project:

“Only a mother in the ICU knows what it is like to spend a year in a neonatal ICU.

This job began when I worked as a primary care nurse technician.

I dealt with groups of pregnant women.

This pregnant women started giving birth and they came with full breasts.

I pumped the milk and I threw it away.

Simultaneously, I also worked in a hospital unit at the neonatal ICU

I realised that I was throwing away milk that was so necessary for those babies dying at the ICU.

Sometimes they died because there was no milk.

So I began collecting that milk.

When I had five jars I called an organisation we had here in Rio de Janeiro called “Bombeiro Amigo”.

But they could not collect it because we were in the slums there was a lot of violence, they did not come up.

After calling for three days I felt discouraged but I finally managed to talk to a women, an attendant.

She said she would collect the milk if I brought it down to the paved street.

So I began to do that once a week, we had this work flow.

She came by “Vincente Carvalho”, the main street and I went down with the milk. We did this for two years.”

Leonardo Graever, Doctor and Primary health Care Advisor

“I was surprised by Zilda’s vast knowledge in regards to breast feeding, she is a nurse technician.

When I became a manager I thought,

I should have Zilda instruct everyone in my management areas about it.

We knew it was worth it, that her work brought results.”

Ania Maria Brasil, Professional Nurse and health science PHD

“During the three years the project has been running, it has accomplished the following:

The accreditation of six basic friendly breastfeeding units and the set up of 14 breastmilk collection units as well as training of over 1000 health professionals.

This work really motivates people to carry on.”

Natalia Bicharra, nurse and activist

“We did not have any resources. I just worked at the health unit.

Later on, we got some funds to continue the project,

but we lost those funds once more.

But the love is so big that we cannot stop.

I began volunteering for the project.

So, every time we have problems collecting the milk,

I go there to pick it up, either by bus, BRT or on a motorcycle.

I go there, pick up the milk and take it to the maternity ward.

All the money in the world cannot pay for what we get in return.

We see babies that were born with 500 grams and that are now five years old.

That is priceless.”

Gabrielle Viveiros, Isis’ mother (a 6 year old)

“Isis was my fourth pregnancy.

I lost three premature babies and we did not manage to get to the ICU in time.

I had lost hope of having a baby, of becoming a mother. I was totally hopeless.

She was one more baby I would lose.

How could I breastfeed a child that cannot suck?

In my 25th week I had milk, but I was not able to produce enough.

What could I do?

It was thanks to this project that today I can say that I am a mother.”

Tania Maria is co-author with Zilda of the book “Projeto Mame” (Project breastfeed) consolidating the initiative

“Zilda is a true inspiration.

Not only as a nurse technician to doctors and academics, but as a human being.

She is an inspiration as a professional, as an expert.

She is extremely competent because all she does, she does with love.

And that is truly inspirational to me.”

Leonardo Graever

“I can no longer see a glass jar with a plastic cap without thinking

That it could be used for a mother to store milk in her fridge,

Or to freeze it to feed her baby.”

Natalia Bicharra

“Zilda’s work made me look more at human beings.

When I look at my work today, I release how gratifying it is to devote my time to others.”


I am extremely grateful that nursing has not only allowed me to do what I wanted,

Which was to take care of people.

It goes well beyond that.

I see that I contribute to society.”

Zilda Santos currently holds a position as a child and teenage manager at Rio de Janeiro’s health department.

Dozens of volunteers all around the city continue the work she started.

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