Julia Weatherby is big into donations. She's donated blood in the past, she's president of the board of Mothers' Milk Bank, she's willing to be an organ donor.
But until she took a hospital tour when she was expecting her son, Jasper, she didn't know it was possible to donate the placenta that had been keeping him safe and fed.
"It was actually really easy," she says. "It was the easiest donation I can give somebody."
St. David's Medical Center has been offering new moms the option of donating umbilical cord blood since February 2012. This February, it began offering moms the option to donate the placenta.
"The mesenchymal stem cells in the placenta have remarkable healing and regenerative properties," says Michelle Kocks, a registered nurse who heads the cord blood and placenta donation program at St. David's.
Once a placenta is done feeding a fetus, it can be used as a skin graft on a person with burns.
St. David's patients have donated more than 100 placentas since the program began. If the placenta isn't able to be used as a tissue graft, it gets used in medical research.
"This is something that could save someone's life, be life-saving or life-changing for someone," Kocks says. "It's something that is going to be discarded as medical waste."
Not everyone can donate a placenta. In order to make sure the placenta is kept sterile from birth through arrival at San Antonio-based GenCure, which also runs the Texas Cord Blood Bank, only women who deliver by cesarean section are eligible to donate a placenta.
Some other factors can disqualify a mother from donation, such as being pregnant with more than one baby, having traveled during or prior to pregnancy to certain areas of the world, having an infectious disease like HIV, hepatitis or Group B step, or signs of another active infection, and being 34 weeks gestation or less. The mother also has to be 18 or older. Her water cannot be broken for more than 12 hours because of the risk of infection.
Donating a placenta doesn't change the way the doctor performs the C-section; it just changes how the placenta is handled. When the placenta is removed, it is bagged in a sterile container and placed in a cooler with frozen gel packs. A courier then comes to pick it up and take it the rest of the way. Kocks has to be on hand to make sure the organ is prepared correctly and transported properly.
Women can decide the day of their C-section that they want to donate the placenta. It's an extra blood test and a bit more paperwork. Nurses try to do the bloodwork at the same time they put in a patient's IV to avoid more than one stick. Donors are not compensated for their donation.
Kocks has been trying to spread the word about this new program by mentioning it at tours, talking to doctors about offering it to patients who would qualify and talking to patients when they arrive at the hospital.
"The day you're giving life to your baby, you're giving life to someone else," she says.
Weatherby is glad she decided to donate when she had Jasper.
"If there's something I could do to help patients who are suffering and in need of extra tissue, it's a wonderful thing to do," she says.