Ellie Gwilliam spoke to the woman behind New Zealand’s only cord blood banking service to find out why she has made banking blood her life work.
There’s a lot to think about when you’re pregnant. The fact that you have created – and are responsible for – another life is monumental. There are birth plans to think about, things to buy, a nursery to set up ... and while pregnancy and babyhood are significant seasons of life, your child’s future beyond nappies and pushchairs will cross your mind too. Many parents re-evaluate their insurance policies at this point, ensuring ducks are in appropriate rows, and strategies are in place to ensure family members are cared for should any ‘worst case scenarios’ eventuate. But what if there was something you could do for your tiny new baby now that could potentially turn around a life-threatening diagnosis later in life? While standard insurance policies pay out only cash, banking your child’s cord blood is an investment that could save your child’s life, whether they are 8 or 80 years old.
We spoke to Jenni Raynish, co-founder of CordBank – New Zealand’s only family cord blood banking service – about the cord blood banking process and why she moved mountains to make it available for parents here.
Cord blood is the blood that remains in your baby’s umbilical cord following their birth and after the cord is cut. The reason it is so valuable is that it contains stem cells, which are a perfect DNA match for your baby. These stem cells are effectively the building blocks of the blood and immune systems and can grow into blood vessels, organs and tissues. In the event of illness or injury – in childhood or adulthood – saved cord blood stem cells are an invaluable medical resource to help repair the body and recover from many conditions, including cancer.
Of course, no parent really wants to think that their child could face illness or injury in the future, but statistics show there is a 1 in 200 chance a person will be faced with a situation in their lifetime requiring medical treatment whereby their stem cells would be beneficial. There is only one opportunity to collect these precious and powerful stem cells, and that’s immediately after your baby is born – so the conversation and necessary planning needs to happen well in advance of your baby’s arrival.
Once you’ve registered with CordBank, you’ll receive a collection kit including all the sterile items your midwife or doctor needs for your baby’s cord blood collection. Keep this in a safe place until you head to the hospital to give birth. But you must remember to take it with you! Slippers and barley sugars will come in handy, but the CordBank collection kit is your one hospital bag essential!
Cord blood is collected from your baby’s umbilical cord via a simple and painless procedure in the first few minutes post-birth. The umbilical cord blood is drawn into a special bag (provided in the CordBank collection kit) by your doctor or midwife. It’s then stored in a purpose-built laboratory in Auckland which is audited annually by Medsafe. Every cord blood collection is tested to record cell count for future use. Once the cord blood is stored, it lasts indefinitely. Of course, all this service and science comes at a cost, but families who have already needed to use their child’s cord blood stem cells describe it as “invaluable” and “priceless”. There is a one-off fee for registration and processing the cord blood of $2,900, and an annual storage fee of $225.00.
Over the past 15 years, Jenni (pictured below with daughter Valentina) has seen how life-changing cord blood has been for families. “I know that all parents want to do the best they can to protect their children’s future health. That’s why I wanted to make this service available in New Zealand” says Jenni. “The biggest challenge for expectant parents is that they don’t always find out about this option in time to take advantage of it. It’s so hard hearing from families who have new babies but missed the opportunity to save their child’s cord blood because no one told them they could. I’d love to see a publicly funded awareness campaign to let people know about the difference cord blood stem cells can make to the health and wellbeing of their children now, and into the future.”
Providing a service
When Jenni is asked why she set up a cord blood banking service in New Zealand, her simple answer is “there wasn’t one here”. However there is a longer, and more deeply personal, version to the story. Seventeen years ago, after her daughter Ariella was born, Jenni went through the painful process of watching her father die a slow death from Alzheimer’s disease. “I watched him go backwards and I remember wishing if only there was a way we could help him go forwards.”
A year later, while pregnant with Valentina, Jenni read about the regenerative power of cord blood stem cells in a US fitness magazine. “It made perfect sense to me, especially having seen my father die from a degenerative illness. There was no downside to saving Valentina’s cord blood for her future. I signed up online with the largest US-based cord blood bank and a few days later the collection kit arrived”, Jenni remembers.
The excitement was short-lived as Jenni and her husband discovered the inconvenient fact that the cord blood stem cells had to be back in America within 32 hours for processing. Geography rendered this impossible. “If she was born at midnight (it turned out to be 1am) and the 12 hour flight to LAX left at 10 pm, we were already looking at 22 hours. Add five hours to get across the States to the lab, and time for customs and delays, and we were well outside the 32 hours” says Jenni.
“I was totally devastated by the lost opportunity – for me, for Valentina, and for all the families here who wouldn’t have the chance to provide this lifelong gift to their babies. But over the next few days, the frustration I felt turned into determination. Maybe we couldn’t save our daughter’s cord blood, but we could create this chance for other families. So, with my business partner at the time, we founded CordBank.”
Many months and mountains of paperwork later, the Ministry of Health granted approval to collect, process and store cord blood, and CordBank was officially launched. Now, 15 years later, the team has banked the cord blood of many thousands of New Zealand families. Jenni and her staff have been blessed to witness the huge difference it has made to the children who have used it for an increasing range of conditions – after cancer treatment, for brain injuries, and in trials for diabetes and autism.
“While both my daughters are thriving and in great health, the fact they don’t have their cord blood stored means they won’t have access to the new therapies we will see in the future for illnesses like dementia and many other degenerative conditions that medicine can’t treat now. I will always wish my daughters had their cord blood stored. I wanted every child in New Zealand to have access to their cord blood. I still do. But I’m so inspired by the difference this service has already made that I’m at peace with it now. In some ways I wonder if it was meant to be, because if the American service had been an option for us, I wouldn’t have been motivated to set up CordBank for other families.”
For more information, go to cordbank.co.nz