They call James Harrison the “man with the golden arm,” and with good reason — for the past 63 years, the Australian native had been giving blood on a regular basis, with his donations estimated to have saved the lives of over 2 million babies. On Friday, the 81-year-old Harrison officially “retired” as a blood donor, having made his final donation after reaching the maximum age allowed under Australian law.
As recalled by the Washington Post, Harrison decided to become a blood donor when he was 14-years-old, after he survived a chest operation that required the removal of one of his lungs, keeping him in the hospital for three months. When Harrison’s father told him that he survived through the blood donations of “unknown people,” the young boy decided to start giving blood once he reached the minimum required age of 18.
In the 1960s, more than a decade after his first donation, James Harrison’s status as the “man with the golden arm” was established when doctors found that his blood contained a rare antibody believed to be capable of combating rhesus disease in unborn infants. CBS News explained that this deadly condition usually occurs when women with RhD negative blood become pregnant with babies that have RhD positive blood. This could lead to a woman’s next baby suffering from hemolytic disease of the newborn (HDN), as the fetus’ red blood cells get rejected due to incompatibility of blood type between mother and child.
“In Australia, up until about 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year, doctors didn’t know why, and it was awful,” said Australian Red Cross Blood Service representative Jemma Falkenmire, in a 2015 interview with CNN’s Sanjay Gupta.
“Women were having numerous miscarriages, and babies were being born with brain damage.”
Using plasma extracted from Harrison’s blood, doctors devised the Anti-D injection, which was first given in 1967 to a pregnant woman at Australia’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. In the five decades since then, Harrison kept on donating blood, with the plasma used to create “millions” more Anti-D injections for expecting mothers. Australian Red Cross Blood Service officials believe Harrison has saved the lives of 2.4 million unborn babies, based on the estimated 17 percent of pregnant women in the country who require the injections. This included Harrison’s own grandchildren, as his daughter Tracey required an Anti-D injection in 1992, shortly after her first of two children was born.
Despite once being quoted as saying that he had no plans to stop donating blood, Harrison made his 1,173rd — and last — donation on Friday, at a point where he had already exceeded Australia’s age limit for blood donors. This event was celebrated by a number of parents whose babies’ lives were saved by the Anti-D injection, as four balloons spelling out the number 1,173 hovered above Harrison’s head as he prepared to make his final donation. At the moment, only 200 donors are qualified for the Anti-D program, though Australian Red Cross Blood Service officials are hoping more people will be eligible for their program going forward.
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Even with all those decades having passed since James Harrison made his first blood donation, scientists remain baffled, as they continue speculating on how Harrison is able to produce the antibody required for the Anti-D injection. According to the Washington Post, most researchers believe that it might be related to the blood transfusions he got at the age of 14. Regardless of what the reason is, the publication stressed that Harrison always remained humble during each succeeding blood donation he made.
“That’s the other rare thing about James,” Falkenmire explained in her interview with CNN.
“He thinks his donations are the same as anybody else’s. He doesn’t think he’s remarkable.”
Aside from his “man with the golden arm” moniker, James Harrison has received a number of honors through the years for his blood donation efforts. In 1999, he was given the Medal of the Order of Australia, and four years later, he was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, after breaking the record for most blood donated by one person.