Planning a baby this year? How I donated my baby’s placenta & where it is now
A new year has begun! As we look forward to a brand-new year, many of us plan to expand our families. Expecting families may be decorating a nursery, organizing a baby shower, and writing a birth plan — but plans for the baby’s placenta have probably never come up.
While we may hear some unique uses for the placenta, like encapsulating or burying it, most placentas are examined for abnormalities and discarded as medical waste. In the U.S. alone, that’s almost 4 million placentas a year.
In 2016, I was pregnant and learned that birth tissue (also referred to as afterbirth, and includes placenta, Wharton’s jelly, amniotic fluid, chorionic membrane, amniotic fluid and membrane, placental/chorionic disc, umbilical veins, and umbilical cord tissue) can be processed into tissue grafts used for wound coverings for those with burn wounds, surgical wounds, and diabetic ulcers. Since I didn’t have any plans for my baby’s birth tissue, I looked into donation options.
I’m no stranger to donation. Eight years ago, after the devastating loss of my baby boy, Thomas, my husband and I donated his eyes, blood and liver for medical research. Curiosity got the better of me, and I did something unprecedented: I tracked each tissue and learned where each donation ended up. Thomas’s donations are contributing to better cures and treatments, and learning about it helped my healing process. This experience also made me curious about how anonymous medical donations, for transplant and research, help progress science and heal our own communities.
I was inspired not just to donate the placenta, but to also track its journey. I hoped I could follow my daughter’s placenta all the way to the final recipients.
Some may call me a tissue donation “nerd.” I prefer the term “super-user.” In the interest of full disclosure, I started working for the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB) after my infant son’s death and donation. As an employee of AATB, I hear about tissue banking advancements before the average person, and I am familiar with some of the individuals and companies involved. So, I decided to take a process I learned about in the conference room and try it out in real life. I decided to be a placenta-donating guinea pig.
Setting it up
I asked my OBGYN group about donating the placenta, but they were not familiar, so I did some sleuthing on my own. I called five different organizations around the country that acquire placentas and had been inspected and accredited by my colleagues at the AATB. (An interesting fact: the AATB classifies birth tissue as belonging to the baby — not the mom.) I soon learned that not all companies had available staff in my part of the country.
I selected Birth Tissue Recovery (BTR) because of their location and interest in my tracking project. Anna Tirrell, Vice President for Quality Assurance & Regulatory Affairs, explained that in order to donate, I would have to read, understand, and sign a consent form, complete a medical and social history questionnaire, allow blood to be drawn and tested, and permit BTR to review, make copies, and retain portions of my medical record. Once I agreed, Anna asked me to tell my OBGYN about my plan, and ask for the name and contact information for the hospital’s manager of labor and delivery (otherwise known as the people who normally get the placenta) to coordinate logistics and medical supplies.
When I explained my donation plan to both my doctor (in person) and the labor & delivery manager (over the phone), their reaction was the same: they had never heard of this, but thought it was cool. They liked the idea that the placenta, something they see discarded every day, might be useful. They were curious about how much extra work it might be, but were supportive overall.
A box of medical supplies and a hug
Through this process, I learned that I might also be able to donate the umbilical cord for pediatric disease research. I contacted a few organizations, and found out that the International Institute for the Advancement of Medicine (IIAM) had a relationship with a researcher at The Cleveland Clinic who was studying respiratory syncytial virus (RSV.) The researcher had registered a request for a donated umbilical cord. RSV is a common respiratory virus with mild symptoms, but it can be serious in infants and older adults, and even lead to hospitalization and intubation. Since I had no plans for the umbilical cord, I decided to donate and completed similar paperwork for IIAM.
In one of those life-goes-full-circle moments, I got the box of medical supplies and shipping instructions needed for this donation from my local organ procurement organization, the Washington Regional Transplant Community — the same organization that arranged the donation of my son’s eyes and liver years earlier. In fact, the very same person who managed my son’s donation, Immanuel Rasool, Manager of Research & Living Donation, handed me the box, along with a hug.
The day of the birth
On June 24, 2016, Anna of BTR met me in the pre-op holding room, where she ensured that my nurse took the required blood for infectious disease testing and I tweeted a few photos. (Has anyone else live-tweeted a placenta donation? I may be a pioneer here.) As I was wheeled into the OR for the birth, I handed over my box of supplies and instructions to the delivery nurses.
Our beautiful, healthy daughter Jocelyn was born via cesarean section at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. While my family settled in to fuss over our new bundle, her donations were on the move. Her umbilical cord was air couriered and arrived in the hands of the researcher in Cleveland, Ohio before 5:00 PM. Anna packaged and placed the placenta in her car and it arrived at the BTR headquarters in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, later that day.
What happened next
The researcher at Cleveland Clinic said she received a great amount of cord blood and it arrived in excellent condition. The umbilical cord was tested for respiratory disease, found to be negative, and determined suitable for study.
My blood tubes were shipped to VRL Eurofins in Englewood, Colorado for infectious disease testing. A few days later, the results came back negative. The placenta had to undergo a few more steps: the amniotic membrane, a translucent “balloon” that contains the fetus, amniotic fluid, placenta and umbilical cord, was then carefully removed and frozen. Almost a month after the birth, the amniotic membrane was shipped to Vivex Biomedical, a tissue processing company in Miami that is affiliated with UMTB Donor Services Foundation.
From there, the amniotic membrane was processed into four tissue grafts: three were 10cm x 10cm (100 square cm) and one was 7cm x 7cm (49 square cm.) Vivex agreed in advance to provide these grafts to doctors they knew well and to explain my wish to track them to the recipients. I wasn’t sure how long this would take or how long these grafts wait to be transplanted.
I was surprised to get an update from Vivex in October — only four months after the birth.
Tracking the donation
I was aware of the challenges of tracking the donation. As with any medical donation like blood, organs, eyes or tissue, recipient and donor identities are de-identified and anonymous. However, in some cases, if both parties sign a waiver of their HIPAA rights, they may reveal their identities to each other and meet — like a medical Secret Santa.
The recipient of two 10cm x 10cm grafts
In the spring of 2016, five-year-old Juan Jr. was in tears. He told his dad, “My knee hurts. I can’t take it.”
“I remember receiving that phone call from the doctors, telling me, ‘Your son is suffering from osteosarcoma,’ which is basically bone cancer,” said Juan Sr.
In mid-October 2016, Juan Jr. had surgery in Miami. The orthopedic surgeon was Dr. Thomas Temple, and he applied pieces of Jocelyn’s amniotic membrane before closing the surgical site to support healing. Approximately four months after the placenta left my body, it went into someone else.
As with many patients who have osteosarcoma, Juan Jr. has a long road ahead of him. He is recovering well at his home in the Dominican Republic. As a parent, I am glad that this donation might help in some small way.
The recipient of the umbilical cord
Jocelyn’s umbilical cord is being studied by Dr. Terri Harford, a post doc researcher in the Pediatric Research Center at the Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. According to Dr. Harford, this is the first clinical study looking in-depth for evidence of RSV passing from mom to baby during pregnancy. Dr. Harford is looking for RSV antibodies in cord blood and placenta.
She sent me a nice message through my contact at IIAM:
“Again, thank the mom for us as this tissue (as every donation) is precious to us. We realize the selfless sacrifices the donors are choosing to make in an effort to support our research. We hope to make important discoveries to help improve the treatment of these babies that end up in the ICU with RSV infections.”
As a parent, I am glad that this relatively easy donation may help lead to better treatments.
The two remaining grafts
For those of you keeping track, two grafts were transplanted into the leg of a little boy who lives in the Dominican Republic, and the umbilical cord is with Dr. Harford in Cleveland. Vivex confirmed that, at the time of publication of this article, there are still two amniotic membrane grafts that await transplantation.
Why do this?
In 2010, I lost half the blood in my body in childbirth. I received the life-saving gift of donated blood from 11 strangers. These people, and the professionals who support the field, gave me an appreciation for the anonymous medical donations that happen all around us, every day. Donating placenta and umbilical cord is just one small way that I was able to contribute to the health of others in the way that others have done for me.
The birth of our daughter was one of the best things that has ever happened to my family, and being able to donate was a bonus. The process engaged and informed our family. As Jocelyn grows older, I look forward to sharing the story of her donation as we discuss concepts like science, community and medical advancements. From the day she was born, she was already contributing. Tracking these donations was fascinating, and gave us confidence that the decision we made to donate was the right one, and the effort to donate really did make a difference.
For anyone inclined, I recommend donating birth tissue. It was relatively easy for me and very valuable and helpful to the recipients. It’s a donation opportunity that is available all year round and a resolution definitely worth keeping.
If you would like to donate
If you are interested in learning more about options for donating birth tissue in your area, a good place to begin is the AATB’s Accredited Bank Search. You can also call your local Organ Procurement Organization and ask for recommendations.
About the author: Sarah Gray is the author of the award-winning, Washington Post bestseller, A Life Everlasting: The Extraordinary Story of One Boy’s Gift to Medical Science.