Anyone who has watched Channel 4’s hit series One Born Every Minute will tell you that seeing new life come into the world can be pretty magical.
Carolyn Sayle and her daughters Neenah and Shauni
Higgins can wholeheartedly attest to that.
Although they have been present at countless births , they are not midwives. They have an altogether different role – but one that could potentially save someone’s life.
All three work for the charity Anthony Nolan as dedicated cord blood collectors.
Their job involves asking expectant mums to donate their umbilical cord blood – which would usually be thrown away – for use in stem cell transplants.
Such transplants are often used when a patient doesn’t have a match from an adult donor, such as if the patient is from an ethnic minority background, because the young cells are more adaptable to different genetic types.
Shauni says: “Donating cord blood can make the difference between life and death for somebody who is suffering from blood cancer or leukaemia – and it’s risk-free for the mother and baby .”
Carolyn, 55, was the first to start working for the charity in March 2014 after relocating from Manchester, where she was an IVF coordinator, to Saxmundham, Suffolk, to live with her partner Paul, 60.
She says: “I’d known about Anthony Nolan for years, having joined the register as a bone marrow donor during one of its first big recruitment drives in the 70s.
“It’s a really important job that we do, and it still fascinates me – that something we would otherwise throw away could save someone’s life.”
Carolyn, who is based at King’s College Hospital in London, says collection is the easiest part of the job. So far she has done 455.
“It’s the bit that comes before that’s difficult,” she says. “The majority of expectant mothers don’t even know they can donate their placentas and umbilical cord.
“Most are already in labour so they’re not in the best frame of mind when we approach them. You’ve got to have people skills and know when not to go in – the look on their face will tell you.”
Carolyn says she starts every shift never knowing what will happen.
“We’ve got ladies walking in constantly in all stages of labour,” she says. “We try to speak to them as they come in as well as keeping track of deliveries.
"It can be a bit hectic when you’ve got a few ladies pushing and you don’t know which one you’ll collect from first.”
Once a woman has consented, a cord collector will be there in the delivery room or in theatre if they are having a caesarean section.
After delivery, the cord and placenta are taken into a separate room. The collector has to massage the placenta and the blood drains through the cord into a collection bag before it is cryogenically frozen.
One of Carolyn’s cord collections was used in a transplant last year. She recalls: “I thought, ‘How fantastic is that?’ I was so proud and told Neenah and Shauni straight away.”
Staff aren’t told where a donation is issued in order to maintain confidentiality, but Anthony Nolan can track how patients are doing further down the line.
Carolyn says: “It’s early days with it only being last year so I haven’t heard anything yet.”
Shauni, 23, was so impressed with her mum’s work she became a cord collector herself at St Mary’s Hospital, Manchester, last May.
Shauni, who lives in Bagley, Manchester, with partner Jordan, 28, explains: “I’d loved the few placements I’d done working in hospitals, and quickly realised I found my dream job when I joined Anthony Nolan.
“On my first day I went into theatre to see a c-section. It was amazing and the first time I’ve ever seen a birth. Nothing prepares you.”
She says one of the most difficult parts of the job is when women decide not to donate. “It seems such a shame for something so valuable to go to waste,” she says.
“Nearly all the cords we collect get used for something – those that aren’t clinical-grade are used in research.”
Mum-of-one Neenah, 28, started working alongside her sister as a cord collector at St Mary’s last July after deciding on a career change after working as an Estee Lauder manager and make-up artist.
She donated her own cord blood when she gave birth to Penelope, 20 months, and says: “I’d heard so much about donating from mum and I wanted to give something back. I wanted to do something that helped people.”
Neenah, who lives in Urmston, Greater Manchester, with fiancé Ian, 30, now wears scrubs and no make-up to work. She says: “A lot of the time I get blood on my face so I don’t want to be worrying about smudging my foundation when I wipe it off.”
But being on a maternity unit can be an emotional roller coaster.
She says: “I had a lady who had been induced but she had a placental abruptio and was rushed into theatre for an emergency c-section. She lost a lot of blood so I couldn’t do the collection and the baby was very poorly.
“That was horrible. It does affect you because you build up a relationship with people. You can sometimes come home after a shift and have a cry.”
Working together has brought about a bit of family rivalry.
Neenah says: “Last week Shauni was saying she’d extracted 235ml of blood and I said, ‘Well, I got 240ml’.”
Shauni adds: “We have a bit of a competition when it comes to the size of the collections. She beat me by five. I always beat mum though!”
How to donate blood
Donating cord blood is completely risk-free for mother and baby, and doesn’t interfere with your birth plan.
Anthony Nolan can currently collect cord blood in four hospitals – St Mary’s, Manchester; King’s College Hospital, London; Leicester Royal Infirmary and Leicester General Hospital.
You can only donate if you’re giving birth at one of these hospitals and you cannot donate if you are having a home birth.
You can register your interest online before birth at anthonynolan.org .
Each mum who donates is given a baby bundle, which includes a certificate and babygro, as a thank you.
There is no subsequent contact between cord donors and recipients who then benefit.
The NHS cord blood bank collects in a further six hospitals – Barnet General Hospital, Luton and Dunstable Hospital, Watford General Hospital, and London’s Northwick Park, St George’s and University College Hospitals.