Adapting traditions to help save lives

All new babies demand flexibility of their parents, but one newborn in Ottawa inspired his mother Eno Ituen to put a twist on an important cultural tradition.

January 31, 2020

In Eno’s home country of Nigeria, generations of parents have buried the placentas of their newborns next to the seeds of trees and even tended those trees in the hope their children would thrive along with the plants.

Eno Ituen

“My placenta and that of my husband were buried when we were born,” Eno says.

But giving birth to her son in Canada in March 2019 made Eno’s decision more complex. At first, her mother-in-law proposed taking the placenta back to Nigeria for burial, but Eno hesitated at the thought of sending it across the world in a suitcase.

Perhaps more significantly, she learned about how it could be used to save a life.

Cord blood stem cells can treat many diseases

Eno delivered her baby at The Ottawa Hospital, one of four collection centres where parents can donate cord blood to Canada’s public cord blood bank. Blood from a newborn’s umbilical cord and placenta is rich with stem cells that can be used to treat more than 80 diseases and disorders.

Donations become part of Canadian Blood Services’ Cord Blood Bank, where they are made available to any matched patient in Canada or abroad in need of a stem cell transplant. The cord blood bank along with the Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry is an important resource for the many patients who can’t find a matching donor within their own families.

Finding a cultural balance and giving life twice

Still, Eno felt challenged to get her mother-in-law on board.

“How do you tell a Nigerian grandmom that you want to donate something that has come out of my uterus with her grandchild?” Eno wondered.

In the end, Eno and her husband swayed the child’s grandmother by explaining the lifesaving potential of those cells. A donation by this family from Africa would also help make Canada’s cord blood bank more diverse. Diversity in both the cord blood bank and stem cell registry benefits patients because the most successful stem cell matches occur between donors and patients who share the same racial and ethnic background.

“Why bury something this precious?” Eno says.

Instead, they went ahead with the donation and found another way to respect tradition.

“When our baby’s umbilical cord stump fell off days after his birth, my mother-in-law saved it. She traveled with it to Nigeria and buried it,” says Eno. Families can also ask Canadian Blood Services to return the placenta to them after the cord blood has been collected.

The process of donating was also less cumbersome than Eno had imagined.

“I was surprised at how stress-free and easy the donation was with no impact on me and my baby,” says Eno. “It felt good knowing we were donating for a good cause,” she adds, describing her decision as “giving life twice.”

Spreading the word

Since having her baby, Eno has chatted with other Nigerian moms about her donation experience.

“Some of them may think that the process is tiring,” she says. “If you keep telling them about the uses of cord blood and reminding them that the process has no direct impact on mother and child, I’m sure more moms would walk through that door.”

This Black History Month, we encourage more Canadians from diverse ethnic backgrounds to register to join our stem cell registry or donate cord blood. You and your tiny hero can save lives!

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