When Anne Swanson gave birth to her first child in 2002, she experienced postpartum depression, that feeling of extreme sadness that researchers believe is brought on by a severe hormonal plunge.
So the 30-year-old didn't want to go through that again when, three weeks ago, she gave birth to her daughter, Maxanne.
But officials at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center didn't go along with her plan. To combat the depression, she wanted to ingest the placenta, the blood- and nutrient-filled sac that connected her to Maxanne during pregnancy.
"I can keep my baby, but I can't have the link that connected us,'' Swanson said about Sunrise's refusal to release the placenta to her. "This was my last pregnancy. I am not going to have another placenta. To me, it was a big deal to have it, whether I was using it for medicinal reasons or planting it.''
Swanson had planned to give her placenta to a friend to be dried, ground into a powder and packed into capsules.
The theory is that excess hormones build up in the placenta during pregnancy, and new mothers can take the pills and replenish depleted hormones and control that down-in-the-dumps feeling some experience after childbirth.
Instead, Swanson is waiting to hear back from Sunrise officials on whether the placenta will be destroyed.
She doesn't have high hopes.
Swanson's placenta was to be disposed of Friday. She and Jodi Selander, a North Las Vegas natural and herbal healing enthusiast who transforms the placentas into pills for local women, met with an attorney last week to go over options Swanson might have.
The attorney sent a letter to Sunrise asking officials to hold off on disposal until Monday. As of Friday, the two had not heard from Sunrise, Selander said.
"I don't know what's going to happen. We can't afford attorney fees,'' said Selander, who has created a Web site detailing the practice. "We're willing to work with the hospital to find a solution. There's got to be a safe way to have this released.''
Swanson gave birth to Maxanne at Sunrise on April 12 by emergency Caesarean section. She had planned to home birth, but complications required her to be hospitalized. When she arrived at Sunrise, Swanson told nurses she wanted to take her placenta home.
After Maxanne's birth, though, the hospital's staff told her they were not comfortable releasing the placenta, Swanson said.
Citing patient privacy laws, Sunrise officials would not discuss Swanson's case specifically. But they said aside from very narrow exceptions, placentas are not released to patients.
"Like any other body part, placentas contain a lot of blood, which can carry infectious diseases such as HIV and hepatitis,'' said Twinkle Chisholm, a spokeswoman for Sunrise. "We take great measures to prevent disease transmission.''
Eventually, Swanson was told by hospital officials to get a court order if she wanted to prevent disposal. They gave her until Friday.
"I didn't have HIV. I didn't have hepatitis. Do you think I would be requesting the placenta if I had HIV? That is ridiculous,'' Swanson said as she carried Maxanne inside Selander's kitchen. "There is no law that says they can't give me my placenta.''
Officials from various Las Vegas Valley hospitals said placentas are stored for a short period of time. Unless a physician has asked that it be sent for medical tests or a patient wants it for specific religious or cultural reasons, placentas are destroyed.
Dr. Bradford Lee, health officer for Nevada's Health Division, said he has been advised by the state attorney general's office that there is no statute or regulation prohibiting hospitals from returning placentas to mothers. And no federal laws bar hospitals from providing placentas to patients.
In 2006, Hawaii became the first state to pass a law allowing hospitals to release placentas for spiritual reasons. But if the baby, mother or placenta tests positive for HIV, it is not released.
In some cultures, it is common practice to bury the placenta. In others, especially the Chinese culture, eating placentas is said to provide health benefits.
"It's a great fertilizer that's chocked with nutrients," said Dr. Rajeev Gala, director of research in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Nevada School of Medicine.
But Gala said he's not surprised at Sunrise's stance. "You have to treat placenta requests just as you would somebody who had to have a leg amputated. It is the equivalent of releasing a dead body.''
Sarah Jones, a Las Vegas mother of three who ingested the placenta of her youngest seven months ago, argues that if a woman wants to keep something that came out of her own body, that should be her right.
"It's kind of crazy, but me ingesting my placenta doesn't hurt anyone else. Even if people are grossed out, I have the right to do it,'' said Jones, 29, who delivered her youngest at home and didn't have to deal with hospital policies afterward.
Jones said Swanson's case upset her. The two are members of Las Vegas-based Birth Year Network. The nonprofit organization provides support and education to future parents on various topics, including home birthing and herbal medicine.
After the birth of her first child, Jones was prescribed antidepressants for postpartum depression.
"I had nothing to lose,'' Jones said about ingesting her placenta. "Obviously, not all things from the body are OK to ingest; but placentas have been ingested for many years, longer than we've been on the continent. Even though traditional medicine has not proven it safe, it has been proven safe through experience.''
The placenta is a temporary organ that transfers oxygen and nutrients from the mother to the fetus during pregnancy. It also allows release of carbon monoxide and waste products from the unborn child. The placenta is expelled, with fetal membranes, during the birth.
Though causes of postpartum depression are unclear, experts believe a sudden decrease in hormone levels is to blame. During pregnancy, a woman's body produces more estrogen and progesterone than needed, and those excess hormones can build up in the placenta.
Within 24 hours after childbirth, the woman's body stops producing those large amounts of estrogen and progesterone.
Traditionally, postpartum depression is treated with therapy or antidepressants. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, also known as TCM, the belief is since the placenta contains the excess hormones, the placenta could prevent postpartum depression, Selander said.
"Inherently, it makes sense,'' Gala said. "The placenta, after just 12 weeks of pregnancy, contains a lot of progesterone and estrogen. After the baby is born, the body doesn't produce enough of these hormones, so there is a sudden crash.''
Gala said he has no first-hand experience with patients wanting to treat postpartum depression that way, though he has read and seen documentaries about medicinal and religious use of placentas.
Selander claims to have made placenta capsules for two dozen Las Vegas women in the last year, as well as for herself.
Selander was prescribed antidepressants after delivering her first child. She kept her placenta during the birth of her second.
She said Sunrise was the only hospital not willing to relinquish a placenta. Selander said her other clients have delivered at MountainView, Summerlin, Southern Hills and St. Rose Dominican hospitals, as well as at University Medical Center. But the majority of her clients have home birthed.
Selander said Southern Hills Hospital allowed her to put out brochures and business cards about the practice. Since the dispute with Swanson, however, "I was told that would never happen again at Southern Hills, Sunrise or MountainView.''
The three hospitals are owned by the same company.
"They (mothers) don't have to tell them what they are going to use it for,'' Selander said. "With Sunrise, Anne was honest. That's when they got upset.''
Lori Harris, a Summerlin Hospital spokeswoman, said the hospital has had three requests for a placenta in its 10-year existence. In each case, it was due to a religious or cultural reason. She wouldn't say whether the placentas were released.
Officials with UMC and St. Rose did not return calls.
Selander said if she receives a placenta from a client who delivered at a hospital, it is contained in a tightly sealed clear bag that is tagged with the hospital's name and marked as a biohazard. Encapsulating placentas is simple, requiring only a few common kitchen appliances and ingredients, she said.
For the most part, Selander washes the placenta, steams it, slices it, and places it into a professional grade dehydrator. It is then ground up into a powder and put into non-gelatin capsules. The process takes two to three days.
Selander began the process as a favor to friends.
But as interest grows, Selander said, she hopes to someday open a business. The endeavor has been put on hold because Swanson's request has brought attention to Selander's work from state health agencies.
"Sunrise notified the health department and I believe the pharmacy board, because I got a call from them asking me about how I did the pills,'' Selander said. "I went down to the health department to talk to them about what I was doing, and I was obviously told they had some concerns. No one has really heard much about this.''
Jennifer Sizemore, a spokeswoman for the Southern Nevada Health District, said the agency's environmental health department is looking into Selander's operation. The agency's attorney, Stephen Minagil, and its director of environmental health, Glenn Savage, are also calling other states to see if they have regulations regarding encapsulating placentas.
The agency also made contact with the federal Food and Drug Administration.
At this point, Sizemore said, Selander isn't in violation of any Health District regulations, however the agency would continue to follow her progress.
In the meantime, Swanson says its probably too late for her to encapsulate her placenta. But she doesn't plan to give up the fight.
"Its about the principle,'' Swanson said. "No matter how you look at it, this belongs to me. It came from my body.''