BY CHRISTA MELNYK HINES
When Jessica Hahn, 23, was just 9-years-old, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. While chemotherapy attacked her cancer, the treatment bankrupted her bone marrow. Umbilical cord blood from a donor replaced her dying bone marrow with new healthy bone marrow, and ultimately, saved her life.
A baby's umbilical cord blood contains a rich supply of potentially life-saving stem cells that can treat leukemia, lymphoma and many other critical medical conditions. Uncertain of the future, but put off by the cost, many parents wrestle with the decision to bank their baby's cord blood. More often, however, the umbilical cord is discarded.
The private banking gamble. Private banks advise parents to pay to store their baby's cord blood as a sort of insurance should the child develop a life-threatening diagnosis that could be treated with stem cells.
Private banking may not be a practical option for many families since it's expensive, costing over $2,000 for the initial processing and around $125 annually after that. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which generally recommends donating cord blood unless a family member suffers from a medical condition that could benefit from a cord blood transplant, says the likelihood of your child ever needing her own cord blood is low, estimating the chances at one in 1,000 to one in 200,000. Still, some families aren't willing to take any chances.
Anne Schoofs chose to bank her children's cord blood, including 2-year-old Grace and 11-month-old twins Katie and Mattie.
"We did not have a specific medical issue that impacted our decision. We just figured you never know what the future will hold. And, even though there are relatively few diseases they can treat today, there could be a lot more in five, 10 or 15 years," Schoofs says.
Donating to public banks. It costs mothers nothing to donate cord blood to a public bank, but few hospitals offer the service due to the expense of creating and maintaining a cord blood donor program.
"A mother's decision to donate her child's umbilical cord blood saved my life," – Jessica Hahn
Kari Sneed learned about the donation program through her doctor when she was pregnant with her daughter Sofie and felt like the decision was a no-brainer.
"All I could think was that if the tables were turned, and we were the ones who needed stem cells, I would want Sofie to have the opportunity to have the best life she could."
How is it collected? Capturing cord blood is a painless, completely elective process following the birth of the baby. After the cord is clamped and cut, doctors use a needle to collect the blood.
The unit is then tested and processed in a stem cell processing laboratory to determine if enough stem cells exist to make it viable for transplant.
What is the criteria? Mothers interested in donating cord blood must pre-register ahead of time and complete a questionnaire about risk factors, including a thorough behavioral and medical history.
Donations are sent to regional public cord blood banks, which match children and adults around the world awaiting a stem cell transplant. Donations from minorities are especially needed.
"A mother's decision to donate her child's umbilical cord blood saved my life," Hahn says. "You never know...who will need our help so it is good to save such a precious thing as cord blood with its potential to save lives instead of letting it go to waste."
Christa Melnyk Hines is a freelance writer, wife and mom to two active boys.