They call him the ‘Man with the Golden Arm’, and that’s no understatement. A 78-year old Australian man who has set the record for the most blood donations in the nation is believed to have helped save the lives of over two million babies since her started donating his rare blood type in 1967.
Despite giving blood an average of once every three weeks over the past 60 years, James Harrison told reporters that he still feels a bit uncomfortable with the process. “I look at the nurses, the ceiling, the spots on the wall, anything but the needle. It’s too macabre, I think; watching yourself get stuck with the needle,” Mr Harrison said.
Regardless, that hasn’t stopped Mr Harrison from his frequent donations – which have now surpassed 1,100. Every single one involved blood taken from this right arm, earning it the moniker of ‘golden arm’.
According to data from the Australian Red Cross, a normal blood donation has the potential to save 17 lives; however, Mr Harrison’s rare blood type is much more powerful. His blood contains strong antibodies that can help fight Rhesus disease, a condition that affects unborn babies.
Since the 1960s, Rhesus disease has killed thousands of babies every year in Australia, with pregnant mothers suffering from miscarriages or stillborn babies as a result of the condition. Children that were born to mothers suffering Rhesus disease often suffered from potentially fatal brain damage and other conditions.
Medical experts struggled to find a viable treatment for Rhesus disease for decades, until it was found that it was being caused by the blood of a pregnant woman attacking the blood cells of her unborn baby. The disease only affected mothers carrying a baby with rhesus-negative blood (RhD-negative) that had inherited their father’s RhD-positive blood type.
But identifying the root cause of the disease was only half the battle. Doctors now had to find a suitable treatment for pregnant women who were diagnosed with it. This is where Mr Harrison’s blood became so important.
It was discovered that Mr Harrison’s blood contained a rare combination of RhD-negative blood and anti-D antibodies, which could be used as a booster shot to protect pregnant women suffering from Rhesus disease.
Mr Harrison had already been donating blood before the discovery was made – as it happens, he himself received a life-saving transfusion in 1951 that inspired him to become a donor.
Australian Red Cross Blood Service spokesperson Jemma Falkenmire explains just how rare Mr Harrison’s blood is: “Very few people have those antibodies and they are very strong in James. His body produces a lot of them and when he donates his body produces more. That’s what makes him a very special case.”
Once the discovery was made in 1967, the Red Cross asked if Mr Harrison would be able to continue making regular donations. “They asked me to be a guinea pig, and I’ve been donating ever since,” Mr Harrison said.
According to a longitudinal study conducted by an Australian university, approximately 17% of all pregnant women need an anti-D booster shot to protect their babies against Rhesus disease. Every single batch of anti-D made in Australia contains Mr Harrison’s blood.
As fate would have it, Mr Harrison’s blood was even used for his own daughter to protect her unborn son. “The anti-D killed those nasty antibodies … and now my second grandson is hale and hearty and going well,” said Mr Harrison. Doctors estimate that Mr Harrison’s lifetime donations have been used in anti-D booster shots that have potentially saved the lives of over two million children, earning him a nomination for Australian Of The Year in 2011.
As Mr Harrison advances in age, the Australian Red Cross has been screening all blood donations for other donors who have the rare antibodies. So far, a number of other participants who donate their blood plasma have joined the anti-D program. It’s hoped that these donors can follow in Mr Harrison’s live-saving footsteps by continuing to give blood.
“Without the generosity of people like Mr Harrison, countless children across Australia would never have been born,” said one of the scientists working on the program. “There are not many who can say they’ve saved the lives of millions of people, but in Mr Harrison’s case it’s true.”