After 23 years in obstetrics, I am still honored to assist with the miracle of childbirth. There is something special about being with a family when they welcome their new gift of life into the world. But the baby, full of hope and potential, is not necessarily the only miracle that can come from that day.
Once a baby is born, the umbilical cord and placenta are typically discarded. However, if the mother would choose to donate the blood in the umbilical cord and the placenta, she could also be giving the blessing of life to those who suffer from blood or certain inherited diseases.
What is Special about Cord Blood?
We often hear about the importance of donating blood. What people might not realize is that a blood donation can be separated into red/white cells, platelets and plasma. These individual parts can be used to help several different people depending on what aspect of the blood they require.
While cord blood contains all the normal elements of blood, it also contains blood-forming stem cells similar to those found in bone marrow. It is this element of cord blood that makes it so special.
According to the National Cord Blood Program, the stem cells in cord blood can treat over 80 diseases; leukemia being the most common. Inherited diseases in red blood cells, the immune system and certain metabolic abnormalities are the next largest group. In addition, sufferers of lymphoma, myelodysplasia and severe aplastic anemia have been successfully transplanted with cord blood.
Cord Blood vs. Bone Marrow
A cord blood transplant works in the same manner as a bone marrow transplant. The blood-forming stem cells help the recipient to start replacing their own blood and alleviate the need to receive continuous blood transfusions.
The biggest difference between cord blood and bone marrow transplants is the difficulty in finding a donor/patient match. And in order for a bone marrow transplant to be successful, the donor and receiver typically need to be as close to a perfect match as possible. Often times, this requirement leaves people dependent on a donation from a family member.
The advantage of a cord blood transplant is the patient/donor might not have to be a perfect match. Sometimes in a bone marrow or organ transplant, mature immune cells will attack the donated cells as foreign invaders to the body. This is called graft vs. host disease (GvHD) and can be deadly. However, the cells in cord blood are not as mature as those in bone marrow and tend to be less likely to cause GvHD. Patients with difficulty finding a bone marrow transplant have a greater chance of finding a cord blood transplant.
Another positive aspect of donating cord blood – it poses no risk to mother or baby. It only requires the mother to inform her birthing team of her wishes. No blood is taken from the baby. The cord blood is harvested from the umbilical cord and placenta, tested and frozen until needed. With bone marrow donations, a donor must be located, testing must be done and the donor must maintain the commitment to follow through with the donation.
Limitations of Cord Blood
But there are some limitations to cord blood donations. The amount of harvested cells tends to be relatively small compared to a bone marrow donation and there is the possibility of passing on a rare genetic disease of the blood or immune system. Although tested for this possibility, it is not practical or even possible to test for every possible disease. And observation of the donor child until the donation is needed would be difficult because symptoms of a disease might not manifest for years.
To ensure the safest possible cord blood supply, guidelines are in place to verify eligible donors. The mother will be asked to fill out a personal medical questionnaire and disclose any family medical history that might be an issue. If she meets the criteria, the donation then proceeds to testing.
Your miracle of childbirth will afford you the opportunity to make a safe, non-invasive donation that might allow another person to experience a miracle in their own life.
An example of the possibilities: OSF Saint Anthony’s Health Center has partnered with the St. Louis Cord Blood Bank since 1996. In that time, we have processed over 3,500 donations and helped to treat 12 different diseases in 13 different countries.
If you or someone you know is pregnant and interested in making a donation, you can contact the Women’s Pavilion at OSF Saint Anthony’s at 618-465-2229 or St. Louis Cord Blood Bank at 888-453-2673.
Julie Ashlock is a registered nurse certified in inpatient obstetrics and has been the Director of the Women’s Pavilion at OSF Saint Anthony’s Health Center for the past 10 years. She has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing from Southern Illinois University and has 23 years of experience as an obstetrical nurse.