Many people know James Harrison as “the man with the golden arm”. He is one of the most famous blood plasma donors. James completely changed the way people viewed donors.
The man from Australia had unusual plasma composition that doctors used to make a treatment for Rhesus disease. Over the years, he made more than 1,000 donations. His donations have saved more than 2.4 million babies.
In May 2018, he made his 1173rd donation, his last one. After that, he retired from donating, as Australian policy prohibits blood donations from people past 81 years of age.
Most people get a gold watch when they retire. James Harrison deserves more. Born in December 1936, he underwent major chest surgery at the age of 14. Realizing blood saved his life, he made a pledge to donate blood himself.
For his contributions, he has been awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in June 1999. He was also nominated for Australian of the Year, but did not win the award. Here is his story.
Returning the favor
We have to start at the beginning of the story. In 1951, then-14-year old James awoke from a major chest operation. Doctors had removed one of his lungs. The procedure lasted for several hours and left him hospitalized for three months.
But he was alive, thanks in part of transfused blood he had received. Harrison recalls his father told him he got 13 units of blood and that his life was saved by unknown people.
That inspired James to donate blood himself. But at the time, Australia’s laws prohibited people below 18 years to donate blood. Harrison had to wait four years before he was eligible for donating.
After turning 18, he started donating blood regularly with the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. Because he disliked needles, he would avert his eyes and tried to ignore the pain whenever they inserted a needle in his arm.
According to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, James has helped save the lives of more than 2.4 babies. Few years after he started donating blood, doctors discovered that his blood contained the antibody which could be used to create Anti-D injections.
So, Harrison switched over to making blood plasma donations. To this day, doctors do not know why he had this rare blood type. One theory is because of the transfusions he received following his surgery at 14 years of age.
His blood is used to make a life-saving medication, given to moms whose blood is at risk of attacking their unborn babies. More than 17% of women in Australia are at risk, so James saves a lot of lives.
Anti-D is an injection doctors made with his antibodies. This injection prevents women with rhesus-negative blood from developing RhD antibodies during pregnancy. Since 1967, more than three million doses of Anti-D have been issued to mothers. Even James’s own daughter has received the vaccine.
Up until 1967, there were thousands of babies dying each year. Doctors didn’t know why. Women would have numerous miscarriages. Babies were born with brain damage.
And at the time, Australia was among the first countries to discover a blood donor with antibody. This was revolutionary at the time.
What is so special about his blood?
As we said before, his blood contains a rare antibody used to make a medicine called anti-D immunoglobulin. It is also known as Rh immunoglobulin.
These products can prevent hemolytic disease of the newborn. They contain a high level of anti-D antibodies given to Rh negative mothers of unknown or Rh positive babies during and after pregnancy to prevent creation of antibodies to the blood of a Rh positive child.
Without vaccination, the antigen sensitization and subsequent incompatibility phenomenon causes Rhesus disease, the most common form of HDN.
When that happens, babies end up with a significant amount of red cells broken down while they are in the womb. And that can lead to serious complications for the newborn, including brain damage, stillbirth, and jaundice.
Luckily, treatment with Rh immunoglobulin, made possible with blood plasma donations by Harrison, can prevent these complications.
Medical experts consider the discovery of the antibody as one of the biggest life-saving discoveries of the last century.