Gift of life: new mothers in the valley donate living tissue

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This Mother’s Day, many new mothers in the Rio Grande Valley are not just celebrating their babies, but that together mother and child have given the gift of saving a life.

As of August 2021, Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville is part of a unique program with the Texas Donor Network to provide living tissue donations.

Texas Donor Network is an FDA-registered organization based in the Rio Grande Valley that partners with local hospitals to provide donated tissue for research, therapy, transplantation, and education.

Although the first thing that comes to mind when you think of “tissue donation” is organs like kidneys or lungs, there is a wide range of human tissues needed to help people.

So that’s where mom and baby come in.

After months of providing shelter, nutrients, and developing a healthy immune system, an essential tool for growing a tiny human has served its purpose: the placenta.

The placenta is an organ that forms during pregnancy around the fetus and is attached to the wall of the uterus. A baby connects to the placenta with an umbilical cord, which allows it to get what it needs until birth.

After that, the placenta usually ends up in the trash, but now the placenta has the chance to help others.

According to Mason A. Covio, director of business development for the Texas Donor Network, the placenta contains a complex matrix of growth factors. Growth factors mean it has the power to regenerate epithelial cells that form the epithelial tissue that lines your body inside and out, from your skin to your small intestine.

The amniotic membrane, which forms inside the placenta, can be used to make grafts that can speed the healing of traumatic wounds that might otherwise be difficult to heal or prone to infection.

“Especially here in the valley where there are a large number of diabetic patients with diabetic wounds, this transplant allows them to regenerate those wounds at a better rate than they would with other procedures,” Covio said.

Keira lies on a play mat as her mother Ana Sierra talks to her on April 27 at their Brownsville home. Sierra is one of a growing group of mothers who have chosen to donate their placentas through a tissue donation partnership between the Texas Donor Network and Valley Baptist Medical Center in Brownsville. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

When Texas Donor Network first approached the hospital with the program, the idea came as a surprise.

“When they first brought it up, I had never heard of it before, which is strange because it’s done pretty much all over the country,” said Miriam Longoria, director of women’s services at Valley Baptist. Brownsville Health System.

While the hospital began working with the Texas Donor Network in August 2021, the program kicked off in December.

Due to the early stages of the project for the Texas Donor Network, they had to obtain 13 placentas in August for their San Antonio-based partner, who performs the transplants to audit their collection process before launching the official program.

After several months, the partnership is something that Longoria says provides a well-deserved opportunity to brag about the unique experience their expectant mothers can have in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

“Now that the baby is born, he doesn’t need that placenta anymore, so it’s a gift the baby can give to someone else,” she said.

For 36-year-old mother-of-two Ana Sierra, who gave birth to her daughter Keira by caesarean section on December 15, it was a pleasant surprise that she could donate her placenta.

Before being approached the morning of her delivery, she had no idea what she would do with her placenta, so donating it made sense.

Now lying on a play mat, shaking a toy for nearly 5-month-old Keira at their Brownsville home, she loves that her daughter was able to help someone else just by being born.

“It makes me feel like my daughter’s life came with a beautiful purpose by donating her placenta,” she said.

However, for pregnant women who want to get involved, there are automatic requirements and exclusions for who can donate to the program.

Currently, placentas accepted for donation can only be those delivered by caesarean section. The main reason for this requirement is twofold.

Director of Women’s Services Miriam Longoria and her clinical supervisor Amanda Rodriguez are pictured May 3 at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

First, it gives the mother, who may not have heard of the new program beforehand, time to educate herself and make an informed decision when she speaks to the Texas Donor Network Birth Tissue Specialist, Gabriel Arguelles, before their operation.

“It’s much easier to approach a mother who isn’t in pain and say, ‘Hey, would you consider donating your placenta?’ as opposed to you twitch every 2-3 minutes and are on an 8 out of 10 pain scale – you don’t really want to talk to Gabriel then donate,” Longoria said.

The second reason is because of what the gift deals with. Since transplants treat traumatized areas, the introduction of unwanted and infectious bacteria and pathogens can cause further damage.

Like the rest of the body, the vaginal canal is human tissue, which means there will always be bacteria and pathogens around.

While a baby already has a way of fighting off the pathogens it picks up during delivery, the placenta does not.

“The placenta, which is not a living organism, is now outside the body and can no longer fight infection. So once contaminated with bacteria, there is no way to stop it,” Covio said.

Soon, Texas Donor Network is working with another partner to allow people to donate placentas delivered through the birth canal, but right now it’s only caesarean section.

To be a donor, the Texas Donor Network also requires mothers to be under 45, with full-term children, no placenta problems, no exposure to COVID-19 in the past 28 days, a blood test and screening. of 48 questions about their medical and travel history.

Once the green light was obtained, fabric specialists like Gabriel Arguelles intervened.

Once the baby is out and the doctor has a chance to make sure he doesn’t need the placenta for further tests, the clock starts for Arguelles.

Even on the ice, the placenta is only viable for 72 hours, so it needs to get to their partner in San Antonio as quickly as possible.

Arguelles, will remove the placenta and perform a culture swab to look for infectious diseases or suspicious bacterial growth.

Then he flushes the placenta with a saline solution to clean it and inspects it for anything that would render it unusable. One of the foreign disqualifiers is if the baby pooped before or during delivery.

Although it may seem trivial, poop (known as meconium) permanently stains the placenta and introduces unwanted bacteria. To be safe to use, they must contain the least amount of bacteria outside of normal – so these placentas generally cannot be donated.

Once inspected and deemed ready, Arguelles triples the placenta and culture swab in a sterile bag with the saline solution, tags it, and puts it in a cooler to take out.

When the placenta reaches San Antonio, the processing facility separates the amniotic membrane to make grafts.

Each graft has a shelf life of six months to one year after the initial donation.

According to Texas Donor Network, most of those donations will stay in Texas.

However, some will be used out of state for patients elsewhere in the country and a fraction internationally.

Currently, the Texas Donor Network limits donations to 20 per month to the hospital, which Longoria says she can fulfill by the end of the first two weeks of each month.

Texas Donor Network capped the program in part because it’s new.

The company says it wanted to be sure as the program kicked off, it could maintain the necessary monitoring without overwhelming its staff.

Their partner in San Antonio also handles the processing for other businesses, so they have to stay within the limit set for what they can accommodate.

However, Texas Donor Network plans to expand its donation capacity in July of this year to 60 donations per month.

With this expansion, the company wants to undertake more outreach efforts with local physicians and open additional informational resources for potential placenta donors on its website. This way, mothers have more opportunities to learn about their option to donate before going to the hospital to give birth.

Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville is also looking for a way to recognize the gift the mother and child have made to their community for future giving at their facility.

“We are really pushing, from a hospital perspective, for these mothers and babies to be recognized as organ donors. Placenta donation is such a simple thing, but what it does is so amazing,” Longoria said.

For more information, visit texasdonornetwork.org.


For more, check out Brownsville Herald photojournalist Denise Cathey’s photo gallery below. ATTENTION: The photo gallery contains graphic medical photos:

Photo Gallery: New Valley Mothers Donate Living Tissue