An Australian man credited with saving the lives of countless women and their unborn babies has retired after donating blood for 60 years. James Harrison, 81, has donated more than 1,100 times, earning himself the nickname “the man with the golden arm,” according to the Australian Red Cross.
Now, obviously, this would be a remarkable feat for any person, so what makes Harrison so special? Well, his blood contains a unique and highly sought-after antibody that used to protect unborn babies from a deadly disease. The condition is called Rhesus D Haemolytic Disease, and causes the pregnant woman’s blood to attack a baby’s blood cells, which can cause brain damage, heart failure and even death of newborns.
But through the harvesting of plasma from generous donors such as Harrison, a lifesaving medication called Anti-D has been developed for mothers who are at risk of developing the disease. “Every ampule of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it,” the medical program coordinator for the blood donation program, Robyn Harlow, told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s an enormous thing… He has saved millions of babies. I cry just thinking about it.”
According to the Red Cross, Harrison was inspired to donate his blood when he required 13 units of blood during chest surgery when he was just 14 years old.
“He pledged to donate as soon as he was old enough and four years later, kept his promise. He began by donating whole blood despite an aversion to needles,” the Red Cross noted. “Over a decade later, it was discovered that his blood contained an important antibody which was needed to make Anti-D injections. James was happy to continue to donate and switch over to plasma donation in order to help as many people as possible.”
As a result of his efforts, in 1999, James received the Medal of the Order of Australia for his “incredible and ongoing support of the Blood Service and Anti-D program.” Now, Harrison’s only hope is that someone else can break his records.
“I hope it’s a record that somebody breaks, because it will mean they are dedicated to the cause,” James said of his last donation.
Red Cross estimates that Harrison has helped save the lives of some 2.4 million babies.
“Australia owes a big thank you to James Harrison, Australia became the first country in the world to be self-sufficient in the supply of Anti-D, and cases of HDN are rare,” Red Cross spokesperson Jemma Falkenmire said. “We encourage the partners and friends of all new mothers to think about donating blood, just one donation helps ensure someone has the chance to be a mother.”
Now, after so many years giving a literal part of himself to millions of strangers, Harrison underwent his final donation May 11. “It’s a sad day for me,” he told the Morning Herald as he gave blood for the final time. “The end of a long run.”
Harrison has retired with a staggering 1,162 donations under his belt. “I’d keep on going, if they’d let me,” Harrison quipped as he took the needle for the last time.
Wow – talk about leaving a stunning legacy – incredible!