This past weekend I visited a student of mine just before she started a bone marrow transplant procedure at SickKids Hospital in Toronto. Her parents were delighted to let me know that they had found a perfect match for her. The donor even had the same blood type so unlike what often happens during these kinds of transplants where the blood type changes; hers will stay the same.
When I heard that this girl’s leukemia had come back and was going to need a transplant, I looked into the possibility of being a donor because our blood types are the same. I had been in the bone marrow donation registry for many years previously, as my mom had leukemia, too, and also needed a bone marrow transplant. As the maximum donor age is 35 and I’m 46, I wasn’t able to go on the donor list.
It turned out that they didn’t have a good match at the time for my mom so she wasn’t able to get an “allogeneic” transplant (one from a different person) but they were able to give her an “autologous” one, which is roughly when they take your own stem cells, treat them, and put them back in.
When my mom had leukemia eighteen years ago, there wasn’t the third option for transplant donors that now exists today: an “umbilical cord blood transplant.” I only heard about this when I went to see my student in Toronto, as I learned her donor came from umbilical cord blood. This was the first I had heard of this! A family who chose to donate their baby’s umbilical cord and placenta is saving this seven-year-old girl’s life!
So what is umbilical cord blood?
This is the blood that comes from a newborn baby’s umbilical cord and placenta. Inside these precious life-giving tissues for our babies are cells called stem cells. These cord blood stem cells can be used to treat inherited disorders like sickle cell anemia, immune deficiency diseases, some kinds of cancer like leukemia, and metabolic disorders. Researchers also use donated cord blood to learn more about other or new kinds of treatments for patients of the future.
How can we donate cord blood?
Donating our baby’s cord blood is free, safe, and painless for the birth mother and baby. The umbilical and placenta are collected after the baby is born and umbilical cut.
In Canada, the organization to reach out to in order to donate your baby’s cord stem cells is Canadian Blood Services. They have a Cord Blood Bank where voluntarily donated cord blood is collected from mothers around Canada at these hospitals:
If you are interested in donating, but are not near these centers, I encourage you to speak with your pediatrician about how the donation might still be able to happen. Perhaps more collection sites will be opening in the future.
In the US, there is a website called Parent’s Guide to Cord Blood - Foundation that has an interactive map of the hospital locations where cord blood can be collected.
What is the biggest barrier to donating?
Awareness! Can you help get the word out? I know there’s one family in particular in Manitoba whose toddler desperately needs a donor. The donor registry team is hoping more families with diverse ethnic backgrounds will donate.
The kids in our London, Ontario school have become like a family. In honour of their fellow student’s cancer treatment journey, the kids will be shaving their heads to raise money for the hospital where she is receiving the treatment. She is there right now and will continue to be there over Christmas where she’ll need to be in isolation and away from her sister, grandparents and other family members and friends. After the transplant is complete, she will continue to be in isolation for several months while her immune system ramps back up from being completely depleted.
When she does come back to school, hopefully in the spring, she’ll have no hair. Our students believe she’ll feel sad to be bald so we’re going to be bald with her. I told the students that I’d shave my head, too, if they raise over $10,000 for SickKids Foundation! We’re shaving our heads on Valentine’s Day, which the day the students picked – to show her how much we love her.
I’m already freaking out about having a shaved head but I feel that if my mom was able to be bald and grow her hair back several times over an eight year period and this young girl has to face coming back to school and being in public without hair, I can do this for them.
We’re so grateful to the family who donated their baby’s cord blood for our dear friend and hope you can help us pass this message along to other parents-to-be.