Yesterday the Cap’n and I took a tour of Bikur Cholim Hospital’s labor and delivery unit in preparation for the Space Invader’s arrival, b’ezrat Hashem, next month. Bikur Cholim is the oldest hospital in the city, built in 1866. Over the years, as the other larger hospitals were built in more outlying areas, Bikur Cholim’s finances and facilities suffered neglect. (We saw a friend last night who said, "That place is a dustbin, isn’t it?") But as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy a few years ago, Russian millionaire and philanthropist Arkady Gaydamak (who just lost his bid for mayor of Jerusalem) purchased it, and one of the first departments to be renovated was the birth and maternity wing. While very small (there are five LDRs, each about a quarter of the size of the LDRs at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital), it is cheerfully decorated, the equipment modern (no birthing stools in sight) and the midwives trained to cooperate with whatever sort of birth plan a mother chooses to adopt.
When the Crunch girls were born in Boston, we were offered the opportunity to bank some of their cord blood privately in case of family illness for which therapy using their cord blood might be required. After consulting my obstetrician, the Cap’n and I discussed the matter between us and decided not to pay to have our children’s cord blood cryogenically preserved. The expense of the collection and storage and the relative unlikelihood of our needing it helped us decide against it.
So I was not terribly curious when part of the Bikur Cholim tour included being handed flyers and forms for banking the Space Invader’s cord blood. But my attention was arrested slightly when I looked at the cover of the flyer. Next to the photograph of a sweet-looking newborn were the words, "Hamitzvah harishonah shelo—his first mitzvah." That wording seemed rather strong for a family privately banking their infant’s cord blood for their own personal use. But it turns out that cord blood banking is done differently in Israel. Donating cord blood here is done publicly, so that rather than saving the cord blood only for a family member, the potential treatment benefits of banked stem cells are available to any member of the Israeli public who is a match for them. And while collection, processing, and storage of cord blood are expensive, grants from Israel and abroad are available to cover these costs so that the donor may donate without charge. In addition to the flyers and forms, the hospital employee who made the presentation also handed out a teudah (certificate) signed by 19 rabbis, including former (Sephardi) chief rabbis Rav Ovadiah Yosef and Rav Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, endorsing the donation process halachically. While the flyer reports that there have been few donations to this Public Cord Blood Bank, there is hope that over time donations will increase, thus increasing the probability of a good genetic match for a patient who requires it.
The low rate of donation of cord blood to the public bank here is probably due to the fact that much of the Jewish population in Israel and the Diaspora is uninformed about halachah’s position on donation of blood, organs, and tissues. The Halachic Organ Donor Society in the United States was founded "to save lives by encouraging organ donation from Jews to the general population (including non-Jews) by educating them about the different halachic and medical issues concerning organ donation." They offer current information on medical issues (such as age and health of donor, brain death, live donation, and the transplant process), halachic issues (such as videos of prominent American and Israeli rabbis, articles, and halachic links), and educational options including audio and video lectures, or scheduling educational seminars with the HODS educators in one’s own area. And HODS issues halachic organ donor cards to those who request them to be carried in wallets or purses.
Both of these organizations are worthy recipients of charitable contributions. Donations can be made to HODS through their website, and Bedomaich Chayi (which funds the Public Cord Blood Bank in Israel) can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the USA at 718-218-8180.