When Erica Jones gave birth to her son Brandon, the Houston woman made a decision that could preserve a precious resource, a resource that has the potential to save lives -- umbilical cord blood.
That blood contains stem cells that can be used to treat blood cancers, leukemia, sickle cell anemia, and about 60 other diseases. But the sad reality is only a tiny fraction of mothers donate their cord blood.
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"The vast majority of women delivering babies in the United States still are not aware of this possibility and it is extremely frustrating," said Dr. Elizabeth Shpall, head of the M.D. Anderson Cord Blood Bank.
In fact most cord blood is thrown away, disposed of as medical waste.
"Cord blood is really a medical miracle," said Dr. Robert Jones, head of the New York Blood Center, which houses the largest public cord blood bank in the U.S.
The blood "has the same kinds of stem cells that are in bone marrow and can, in fact, substitute for bone marrow ... for a patient who needs a bone marrow transplant," he said.
A cord blood transplant has allowed 17-year-old Jesus Santoyo, a high school senior from Houston who four years ago was diagnosed with leukemia, to think about going to college. Thanks to a cord blood transfusion, he's healthy now.
He will never know who saved his life with a cord blood donation.
"Whatever I go into, I know I want to make a difference in other people's lives because they've made a difference in mine," he said.
As many as 10-thousand Americans each year could benefit from donated cord blood, but there is such a shortage that many while die waiting.
Most expectant mothers who think about umbilical cord blood, think about storing it privately, paying thousands of dollars for a company to collect and save it for their child's possible use later in life.
The American Medical Association suggests that is a waste of money.
"The chances that a person would use their own cord blood to help that child are somewhere between one in 20,000, all the way up to one in 200,000," Dr. Joanne Kurtzberg of Duke University's Medical School said.
But donating cord blood, which doesn't cost a family anything, and allowing public blood banks to collect and store it for anyone to use has real value, doctors say.
"It's really a no-brainer," Kurtzberg said. "It's a substance that's biologically active. It has no real other application and it can save a life."
Because the United States is so ethnically diverse, doctors figure they need about 250,000 cord blood donations to cover everyone in need. They particularly need more units from minorities.
Handling that many donations, however, would require more federal money to collect, test, and store the cord blood, and a greater public awareness is also needed.
Erica Jones said she donated because she was so grateful for the birth of her son that she wanted to give something back.
"If I can donate something to give back to the children, then I wanted to do that," she said.
Cord blood transplants are particularly effective with younger victims, because their immune systems are immature, so any problems with blood compatibility are minimized.
For Jones, she barely knew the blood had been taken.
"When they collected it I wasn't even aware they did it," she said. "It was absolutely painless."
In fact most women don't need much convincing. One survey found that 95 percent of new mothers said they would have donated their cord blood, if only someone had asked.