When Missy Corwin gave birth in October to her third child, Colin, she gave the gift of life twice.
Corwin donated her umbilical cord blood to Michigan Blood's Cord Blood Bank for transplantation to patients with certain blood-related diseases.
"I'm a blood donor, so it was natural that if I donate whole blood, why not cord blood?" said Corwin, a donor care specialist for the Traverse City office of Michigan Blood, an independent nonprofit blood bank based in Grand Rapids. "It's just another way of donating blood."
A transplant of stem cells from cord blood or marrow may represent the best hope for people with certain life-threatening diseases. But only about half of the average 10,000 people who need transplants annually receive them, according to the Minneapolis-based National Marrow Donor Program. That's because of the difficulty of finding a donor with a closely matching tissue type,
For many who can't find a match elsewhere, the Michigan Blood's Cord Blood Bank is their savior. The facility is the first public cord blood bank in the state and one of only 20 such banks in the U.S. Its inventory currently contains more than 3,600 cord blood stem cell units, of which about 102 have been sent to transplant centers around the world, said LeeAnn Weitekamp, the bank's medical director.
"We are having a global impact through the donations here," Weitekamp said, noting that the units have gone to 31 different U.S. cities and 15 other countries, including New Zealand, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, France, Turkey and the Czech Republic.
Two of those potentially lifesaving units came from donors at Munson Medical Center, said Allison Beers, public relations coordinator for Michigan Blood. One unit was collected in 2003 and was transplanted in 2008 to a 6-year-old girl with sickle cell disease. The other was collected in 2006 and transplanted in 2011 to a 47-year-old man with acute myelogenous leukemia.
Many other cord blood units frozen at the bank are from donors at Munson, one of 14 Michigan hospitals that participate with cord blood donation to the facility, Beers said.
Munson makes about 1,750 deliveries a year, said Doug McKay, department chair of obstetrics and gynecology for the hospital. About 10 a month result in cord blood donations, Weitekamp said.
The two say they are seeing fewer donations as people get busier and more facilities are adopting "delayed" rather than "early" clamping, which some findings suggest is better for newborns' health.
"I think the reason why more people don't give cord blood is the same reason more people don't give blood. It's a matter of legwork," said McKay. "And people get so much information during pregnancy. What do you emphasize, what are patients more interested in? They're probably more interested in their own child. (Donating) just falls down the list of priorities. It's information overload."
To donate cord blood, pregnant women preregister with Michigan Blood by completing a preliminary screening over the phone or online and discussing their intent with their health care providers. About 12 weeks before their due date, the blood bank mails a free kit women take with them to the hospital.
"The most important thing is bringing it with you when you deliver," Corwin said. "We just put it with our suitcase so it was all ready to go."
Hospital staff draw the umbilical cord blood into a bag after the baby is born but before the placenta is delivered. Then the hospital ships the donated cord blood to the cord blood bank for processing.
The bank prepares the cord blood stem cells within 48 hours of collection and freezes the prepared units at extreme cold temperatures until they're matched with a patient needing a transplant. Then the stem cell units are shipped in a dry shipper to the transplant center.
About 25 percent of donated units qualify by stem-cell count for inclusion in the cord blood bank's inventory, said Weitekamp, adding that the blood is also screened for anything that could put transplant patients at risk.
"The more cords we have, the more cords that fit the requirements for freezing," she said.
At Grand Traverse Women's Clinic, pregnant women receive a pamphlet about donating to the public bank at their mid-pregnancy ultrasound, said obstetrics nurse Pat Christians.
"The others are so terribly expensive," she said, referring to private blood banks that charge pregnant women fees for storing their cord blood for their family's potential use. "It can cost thousands. You pay an initial fee and then a monthly fee to have it cryogenically frozen. It's not a one-time payment. If we had more people doing this, people wouldn't have to harvest their own blood."
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists agrees, and encourages blood cord donation to public rather than private banks, McKay said.
"Cord blood has a number of potential benefits and the best way to increase them is a wider supply of available blood," he said. "There's no cost to the patient, there's no risk to the patient, there's no risk to the child. There's really no reason not to donate."
Corwin said she decided to donate her cord blood to a public bank for altruistic reasons.
"It's a very easy thing to do," she said. "Otherwise it's just going to be thrown out. It's medical waste. And that medical waste can save a life.
"What I think is cool is that when you donate cord blood you're bringing a new life into the world and you're saving an existing life," she said.