When Rebecca Luedtke gave birth to her first child, Simon, she told the doctor to extract Simon’s umbilical cord blood so she could donate it. She told him umbilical cord stem cells had helped save her mother’s life.
"I wanted to continue the circle of life," Luedtke says.
Only three years earlier, Luedtke received a Christmas Eve call from her parents. Her mother’s leukemia had returned after only one year of remission. That was in 2002.
In a last-ditch effort, doctors infused Luedtke’s mother, Sharon Weis, with cord blood stem cells from a public bank. She has been in remission for six years.
Increasingly, more doctors are using cord blood as an alternative treatment for leukemia patients when bone marrow matches don’t exist, says Dr. Olga Frankfurt, hematologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
While cord blood stem cells are more flexible in replicating healthy cells than bone marrow stem cells, doctors know little about them. And they knew even less when Sharon received her transplant.
"But it was the only option we had," says Leon Weis, Luedtke’s father. "What else were we going to do?"
On the day of her transplant, known to the family as "Day Zero," Sharon donned a dress and makeup and made her way to the hospital. A simple IV bag infused the cord blood into Sharon’s veins to channel the stem cells to her bone marrow. There, they created healthy bone marrow cells and eradicated any leukemia cells that remained after her chemotherapy.
Within a year, Sharon was able to live as she had before leukemia. More than that, she was able to hold Simon, her first grandchild, who is now 3. And she hoped that his donated cord blood might save someone else’s life.
For Christmas 2005, almost three years after Sharon received her transplant and the gift of remission, her daughter gave her a homemade certificate, dedicating Simon’s cord blood donation to Sharon’s life.
"It brought tears to my eyes," Sharon says. "It was an honor."