James Harrison, has donated blood since he was 18, and has given blood a record-breaking 1,173 times, helping save countless babies. The Australian, who is 81, has blood which contains a rare antibody used in medication to combat Rhesus disease – a condition which makes the blood of pregnant mothers attack their unborn children.
He became ‘the Man with the Golden Arm’, for the number of donations he has made, as well as the earning a Guinness World record and a Medal of Order from Australia.
In 1951, when James was 14, he had a life saving operation to remove one of his lungs. This major chest operation took several hours, and kept him hospitalised for three months. James Harrison was alive thanks to the vast quantity of transfused blood he had received.
“My father told me that I had 13 units of blood and my life had been saved by unknown people.”
Harrison vowed, as soon as he turned 18, that he would donate blood regularly to the Red Cross. As soon as he turned 18, he kept his promise, and made donations fortnightly.
Meanwhile, doctors in Australia were trying to figure out why there were thousands of births in the country that were resulting in miscarriages, still births or brain defects.
“In Australia up until 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year, doctors didn’t know why, and it was awful,” Jemma Falkenmire, of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, told CNN in 2015. “Women were having numerous miscarriages and babies were being born with brain damage. Australia was one of the first countries to discover a blood donor with this antibody, so it was quite revolutionary at the time.”
They discovered that the babies were suffering from the hemolytic disease of the newborn, or HDN. The disease arises when a mother contains Rhesus negative antibodies and the baby contains Rhesus positive antibodies, the incompatibility causing the mother’s body to attack the baby’s cells and and reject the foetus’ red blood cells.
However, doctors realised that they could prevent this from happening by injecting the pregnant women with a treatment made from donated plasma with a rare antibody. Researchers scoured blood banks to find whose blood contained this antibody and found a donor in New South Wales: James Harrison.
James’ blood contains the precious Anti-D antibody. Anti-D is a very rare antibody, and James is one of the few individuals known to carry this antibody in Australia. By this point, James had been donating blood for more than a decade and didn’t think twice about participating in what would become the Anti-D progamme. Researchers developed an injection known as the Anti-D, made from the plasma of Harrison’s donated blood, which was first administered in 1967. Since then, Harrison has donated for over 60 years, and his plasma has been used to make millions of injections.
Doctors are unsure why Mr Harrison has this rare blood type, but suspect it may have been caused by the transfusions he received after his lung operation.
“Every bag of blood is precious, but James’ blood is particularly extraordinary,” said Ms Falkenmire. “Every batch of the life-saving Anti-D that has ever been made in Australia has come from James’ blood. And more than 17 per cent of women in Australia are at risk so James has helped save a lot of lives.”