Stella Dao, MD ’92 : Solving a serious problem for new mothers
Research has shown breast milk to be far superior for a baby’s health than formula milk.
The American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists recommends breast feeding for at least the first year of a baby’s life. As a medical doctor, Stella Dao, MD ’92 was well aware of this. But going back to work after giving birth to twins, she found herself in a situation where she didn’t have time to pump milk.
“In an Emergency Room environment,” says the soft-spoken Dao, “you can’t schedule when you eat or even when you go to the bathroom, and you definitely can’t schedule when to pump milk.” And yet, Dao knew that if she didn’t pump every few hours she might end up with low milk supply. And her babies, especially because they were born prematurely, needed the breast milk.
Instead of giving up and feeding her twins formula, Dao decided to look for a way to help herself and other women facing the same dilemma. “I knew many women must be in the same boat,” she says. She wanted to create an attachment for existing breast pumps that would allow her to move around and get on with her work while she pumped. And with the help of her husband, Dan Garbez, who already had a career in business and manufacturing, that is what she did.
The husband-and-wife team put their heads together and came up with some designs. They were aiming for a device versatile enough to fit different types of pumps that was comfortable for any woman to wear under her clothing. Since 2009, they have been honing their invention based on customer feedback and research. A few years ago they designed a quieter pump, as well, to work with the device.
The most recent version of the product, called Freemie, is now available on the couple's website, as well as on Amazon and at large stores like Walmart. In the past three years, the product won three major awards including Best of Baby Tech 2016, Edison Award Gold Medal in Health and Wellness 2017, and USA Today Innovation Award 2018.
Today, Dao’s husband runs the operations side of their company, while Stella is chief of Occupational Health at Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento.
“I am very grateful to my amazing husband,” she says. “Managing people is hard, and he took all of [the business] on.”
Dao has been recognized in the Campaign Alumni Awards 2019 in the Audacious category. Does she consider herself audacious? “People who go into emergency medicine tend not to believe they should follow a lot of rules. They basically do what it takes to save the patient,” says Dao who, in inventing this new device did what it took to help herself and other women out of a bind they’d been experiencing for years.
“I hoped to give women more freedom, mobility, and flexibility,” says Dao. “I was outraged there was no solution, so my husband and I created one.”