Donating Cord Blood

Donating Cord Blood

Jennifer McDonnell recently gave birth to her second child, Cormack. As she did when her 3-year-old son Kieran was born, Jennifer donated the cord blood.

Nine years ago, Tanya Dunn made a similar decision when she was pregnant with her daughter Mercy. However, instead of donating it, she and her husband paid to have the blood stored in case the family needed it someday.

Cord blood is a rich source of potentially life-saving stem cells, which are blood-forming cells. The blood can be collected from the umbilical cord and placenta at birth and stored for possible future use in a stem cell transplant or for research.

Jennifer chose to donate to LifebankUSA for research. Its parent company, Celgene Cellular Therapeutics, uses cord blood in clinical trials related to Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and ischemic stroke.

Donating cord blood is “a way to give back,” asserts Jennifer. “I’m a big fan of research. There are a lot of ethical questions about stem cell research, but to me it’s pretty straightforward. It’s easy to do and there isn’t a cost to donate. If you don’t do it, unless you decide to take it home some people bury the placenta in the backyard they’re just going to throw it away.”

Fearing that she herself might need it is why Tanya Dunn paid to store her daughter’s cord blood with ViaCord, a private cord blood bank.

Mercy Dunn was conceived five months after Tanya finished a course of chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Banking the cord blood was like having an insurance policy in case she relapsed and needed a stem cell transplant.

She and her husband Brian never dreamed that instead, just two years later, it would be their son, River, who would need one. He was five when he was diagnosed with leukemia.

“We never expected to have to use it for one of our kids,” says Tanya. “We spent the winter at Maine Medical Center and the spring and part of the summer at Boston Children’s Hospital. River wasn’t responding to the chemo, so needed a transplant.”

But when they had their stored cord blood tested, they were devastated to learn it wasn’t a match. After an agonizing month and a half a match from an anonymous donor was finally found through the National Marrow Donor Program.

Today, nearly eight years later, mother and son are doing fine. Tanya says for the time being they will leave their cord blood in the bank, but may decide to donate it for someone else’s potential use. They pay $100 a year in storage fees. The upfront costs totaled about $2000, which, after an intense letter-writing campaign explaining why they were banking in the first place, was covered by insurance.

Because Jennifer is donating for research purposes, she pays no fees. It would be the same if she were donating to a public bank in the hopes it would be a match for someone needing a stem cell transplant.

An important step in the collection process for both women was making sure their health care providers agreed to do the collection. Ellie Grillo, a certified nurse midwife with Back Cove Midwives in Portland, says it’s a fairly simple procedure. “It’s a matter of clamping and cutting the umbilical cord, sticking in a syringe and withdrawing the blood into a bag much like what is used for regular blood donations. You label everything and after that, it’s up to the parents to ship it to the company.”

There are two general types of cord blood banks a private or family bank and a public bank. If you use a private bank, you own the blood and you decide how it will be used. When you donate to a public bank, you no longer own the blood and there is no guarantee your donation will ever be used. If it doesn’t meet certain criteria, it will be thrown out.

More than two dozen states have laws mandating physicians to inform patients about cord blood banking options. Maine does not have such a law. However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that all physicians give balanced information to pregnant patients considering banking, “presenting both the advantages and disadvantages of public vs. private cord blood banks.”

Jennifer and Tanya did their research and albeit for different reasons, opted to preserve their cord blood. For Jennifer, “It’s something simple people can do that can make a big difference. Tanya, whose son’s life was saved because of a stem cell transplant, agrees and would not hesitate to do it again. “Absolutely, why would you not bank or donate even for research. I would not think twice about doing it if the finances didn’t stand in the way. Hopefully, it will help somebody eventually.”

If you would like more information about cord blood donation, visit the Parent’s Guide to Cord Blood Foundation at www.parentsguidecordblood.org.


Diane Atwood was the health reporter on WCSH-TV for more than 20 years. She is now a freelance medical writer and also has a health and wellness blog called Catching Health. To read her blog or learn more about the writing services Diane offers, go to www.dianeatwood.com. You can also send her an email: diane@dianeatwood.com.

Jennifer McDonnell with sons Kieran and Cormack
From left to right: Mercy, Tanya, Brian, and River Dunn

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