1951 marked the beginning of a very fulfilling life journey for James Harrison. The then teenager from Australia had just woken up from a major chest surgery that had lasted hours. Doctors had worked tirelessly to remove one of his lungs which later on led to his hospitalization for three months. During this tough time, Harrison realized that he was surviving mainly on the vast amount of transfused blood had been receiving.
According to former Australian laws, donors were supposed to have an attained 18 years before being allowed to donate blood. This meant that the boy had to wait for 4 more years. Young Harrison waited until he was of age and started donating blood, continuing to do so for the next 60 years. The organization estimates that Harrison has saved countless lives through this selfless gesture.
Immediately after Harrison became a donor, doctors made an amazing discovery. Harrison’s blood was special, and it could be used to solve s deadly health problem. “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 Jemma Falkenmire of the Red Cross Blood Service. “Women were having numerous miscarriages and babies were being born with brain damage.”, she told CNN.
Thanks to important insights in the medical field, its now known that the cause of these terrible medical outcomes was rhesus disease, a condition where a pregnant woman’s blood views her unborn baby’s blood as foreign therefore attacking it.
Rhesus disease occurs when a pregnant woman’s blood is rhesus-negative (RhD negative) and the baby in her womb is rhesus positive (RHD positive) inherited from the biological father. If the mother ‘s blood has been sensitized to rhesus positive blood, usually from a previous pregnancy with a rhesus positive baby she may produce antibodies that act against the baby’s blood cells then perceived as ‘foreign’
Doctors discovered that Harrison’s blood had a rare antibody and used it to develop an injection called Anti-D. This important medical breakthrough meant that mothers with rhesus-negative blood could be prevented from developing RHD antibodies during pregnancy so long as they are given an injection of Anti-D.
It's still a medical mystery as to why Harrison had this rare blood type, however, doctors think that the transfusions he had received when he was 14 years old could be the reason. The blood service also says there are no more than 50 people in Australia known to have these antibodies.
“Every bag of blood is precious, but James’ blood is particularly extraordinary. Every batch of Anti-D that has ever been made in Australia has come from James’ blood.” Falkenmire said. “And more than 17% of women in Australia are at risk, so James has helped save a lot of lives.” About 2.4 million, to be exact.
James Harrison, now known as “The Man With the Golden Arm”, has made a total of 1,173 blood plasma donations with 1,163 done on his right arm and 10 from his left. “It becomes quite humbling when they say, ‘oh you’ve done this or you’ve done that or you’re a hero,'” Harrison told CNN.
“They asked me to be a guinea pig, and I’ve been donating ever since,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I’d keep on going if they’d let me.” Mr. Harrison had however exceeded the donor age limit and the Blood Service could not allow him to make more donations as a way to protect his life. His lifetime act of selflessness has earned him the Medal of the Order of Australia, awarded to him in 1999.