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Getting The Job Done

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Click here for Len’s profile.

When our two daughters were born, my wife and I went through just about every emotion you can imagine. (Of course, my wife also went through just about every physical sensation you can imagine—thank you, Ann!) The birth of a child is an amazing time—something you never, ever forget.

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When Len Zon’s son was born, though, there was an added element of excitement that’s only likely to happen when one of the parents is a scientist. It was 1993 and Len had just learned how a baby’s umbilical cord blood could be harvested, saved, and potentially later used in the treatment of a wide array of genetic diseases. I’ll let Len take it from here….

“I attended one of the first cord blood transplantation seminars. And I was amazed that this actually was working for kids who had genetic diseases. And so at that point, I decided it would be great to harvest my own son’s cord blood. At that time, the head of the blood bank at Children’s Hospital was also interested in storing cord blood, so I organized with him that he could collect my son’s cord blood. And when we were going to the hospitals for visits, we were sure we had told the obstetrician that we were going to do this entire procedure.

Getting The Job Done-len_in_delivery_room.jpg
Sure enough, Len is smiling now!

“What we didn’t expect was that my wife would go into labor about a month early. And while she was in labor, at the very last moment, before she was about to deliver, I realized that I wasn’t storing the cord blood because we were so involved in the moment. So at that time, I called one of my friends, Jed Goreland, who was the head of the blood bank. And I said, ‘Linda’s about to go into labor and we really need you to come and harvest the cord blood samples.’ And Jed said, ‘Len, I’m teaching at the medical school right now, and I really can’t come. You have to do it yourself.’ And I said, ‘But I don’t want to do it myself!’ And he said, ‘You have to do it.’ And so he told me the procedure, which is to wipe off the cord and to milk the cord as much as you possibly can into a flask with anti-coagulant in it. And he said he’d come by later after he taught and he’d collect the flask.

“I had multiple thoughts. One was, ‘Maybe I should just bag the entire idea’—at the time, cord blood transplantation had only been done a few times. And so maybe it wasn’t worth getting this blood stored. On the other hand, as a scientist I hate to miss an opportunity. So I was very conflicted about being supportive for my wife, but also to—to get the job done. And so with that, I decided to get the job done.”

Len moved into action, quickly collecting all the necessary tools to harvest his son’s cord blood and—to his wife’s and his own great relief (and for the survival of their marriage!)—even made it back to the delivery room before his son was born. Happily, Len’s son was and is healthy and has never needed that cord blood. But the blood is still saved in a flask, stored 17 years ago, by a nervous, but proud papa.

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.