It had been a dark and stormy night and I had been on maternity call for roughly 478 hours. I was minutes away from catching another baby in the Labour and Delivery room, this time courtesy of a woman from Gabriola Island. Gabriola is a gorgeous little pearl in the Gulf Island necklace that adorns the waters between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland. It is home to many a free spirit including many Americans who spirited themselves free of the draft. It remains the happy hippie home of gumboots, granola and good guano. It is the land of tie-dye, bandanas, VW vans and peace.
The birth of this freshest Gabriolan was going well, though a naked four-year old prancing about the room sticking his nose into the action site (to check for his new sib) was a tad distracting. Fifteen minutes after the pleasant entrance into this world of Moonshadow Raccoon Nosehair, came the placenta (afterbirth).
“Could you save that for us please, doctor?”
“Why?” I inquired.
“Well, we plan to cook it up and eat it,” they replied.
Honestly believing that they were kidding, I then let loose with a wisecrack that subsequently landed me in hospital hot water. “So, what do you cook it with, Placenta Helper?”
Such was my first exposure to placentophagia (the eating of placenta). According to the Julia Childproducts’ cookbook Quick and Easy Human Organs, the placenta can be fried, sauteed, fricasseed and even baked (half-baked?). The February 1999 edition of Harper’s Magazine actually describes some popular recipes for placenta. Honest.
Various cultures are known to spread the placenta in gardens. Others will bury it with a palm seedling, which upon maturing as a tree, can be a reminder to the child that part of them is in part of that coconut.
In addition to being used as a dietary delicacy, protein and hormone-rich placenta is used in health care products ranging from shampoos to Chinese remedies for impotence, menopause and general anti-aging. Those with an extra $25,000 and wish to feel younger, may wish to undergo placental injections.
Placenta, which is derived from the same stem cells as the baby, is the only non-diseased live organ that can be removed from the body for study. Most folks resent having a liver or brain removed for scientific study. Placentologists are able to use this organ to test drugs or poisons, extract hormones, investigate disease (genetic) and even use the placental membrane for healing burn wounds.
It is remarkable to realize that, be it an inny or an outie, the wee lint collector in the middle of our belly was once our lifeline. We can be born sans various appendages and even organs, but everyone (with the exception of Adam and Eve perhaps??) has a navel base.
The placenta does not actually transmit mother’s blood to baby, but rather it acts as a barrier preventing her blood from mixing with that of the fetus. It selectively allows the passage of substances required for fetal development including nutrients, oxygen, and Snickers bars. It is also the conduit for returning waste products like ammonia and broccoli back to the mother. If this 500g organ gets infected, has a diminished blood supply, is contaminated by alcohol or tobacco, or is not sitting in its proper locale within the womb, then the fetus is at risk of having birth defects.
By examining the placenta, known as the “diary of life”, much about life in the womb can be determined. Cerebral palsy (brain damage caused by a “botched” birth) is a major reason that 80% of obstetricians have been sued. Much to the chagrin of lawyers, there may not necessarily be anyone to blame in many of these cases. The placenta rather than the doctor may be the culprit or it may reveal an answer as to what was the real cause of brain damage. If not, surprise your dinner guests with a new casserole.