James Harrison, 81, is known to his fellow Aussies as the Man With the Golden Arm. Until last Friday, Harrison had donated blood every week, helping to save the lives of more than 2.4 million Australian infants. Though he will no longer be able to donate, since Australia doesn’t allow donations past the age of 81, his contribution won’t soon be forgotten.
Harrison's blood has rare, disease-fighting antibodies that researchers have used to develop Anti-D, which helps to prevent Rh disease in mothers who are Rh negative and treat those who are Rh positive. Expectant mothers are often treated during and after pregnancy. Rh is a hemolytic disease that can result in anemia, brain damage or miscarriages. The condition stems from a pregnant woman having rhesus-negative blood and the fetus having rhesus-positive blood, inherited from its father, wherein the mother’s blood produces antibodies that effectively destroy healthy blood cells in the fetus.
Harrison began making donations after having chest surgery when he was just 14, the Australian Red Cross Blood Service said. Since he was reliant on blood donations to save his life, he vowed to become a donor himself. After a few years, doctors discovered that Harrison’s blood contained antibodies that could be used to develop Anti-D injections, so he began making blood plasma donations.
Meet James Harrison.— Globalnews.ca (@globalnews) May 12, 2018
His blood contains disease-fighting antibodies that help fight against rhesus disease.
He has donated blood 1100 times and saved 2.4 million babies in the process.
Now he’s retiring - and challenging people to beat his record. https://t.co/NgHm2VgXvj
Though doctors are unsure as to why Harrison carries these antibodies, they suspect it is a result of the multiple transfusions he received at 14. Experts estimate that only 50 other individuals in Australia carry these antibodies.
"Every bag of blood is precious, but James' blood is particularly extraordinary. His blood is actually used to make a life-saving medication, given to moms whose blood is at risk of attacking their unborn babies. Every batch of Anti-D that has ever been made in Australia has come from James' blood." Jemma Falkenmire, of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, said. "And more than 17% of women in Australia are at risk, so James has helped save a lot of lives."
Anti-D, which prevents pregnant women with rhesus-negative blood from developing RhD antibodies, has been administered to more than three million Australian mothers since 1967. Harrison's own daughter was one of the recipients. "That resulted in my second grandson being born healthy," Harrison said. "And that makes you feel good yourself that you saved a life there, and you saved many more and that's great.”
James Harrison began giving blood at 18 and now at the age of 81 and has given blood 1,172 times.— WAFB (@WAFB) May 16, 2018
His blood contains a rare antibody known as anti-D that protects unborn babies from a deadly disease. Great job sir! >> https://t.co/ntgG7PuLN0 pic.twitter.com/eGDfNIRyPS
Discovering antibodies in Harrison's blood has been an absolute game changer, Australian officials said. "In Australia, up until about 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year, doctors didn't know why, and it was awful. Women were having numerous miscarriages and babies were being born with brain damage," Falkenmire said. "Australia was one of the first countries to discover a blood donor with this antibody, so it was quite revolutionary at the time."
Given his life-saving contributions, Harrison is a national hero to Australians. He's won numerous awards, including the Medal of the Order of Australia. "It becomes quite humbling when they say, 'oh you've done this or you've done that or you're a hero. It's something I can do. It's one of my talents, probably my only talent, is that I can be a blood donor," Harrison said.
Falkenmire hopes that others will follow Harrison’s example and donate. "All we can do is hope there will be people out there generous enough to do it, and selflessly in the way he's done," she said.