[Heroes & Their Stories] Man with the Golden Arm

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This Hero’s Blood Donations Saved 2.4 Million Babies

James Harrison, an Australian man whose blood contains a rare antibody that can create a treatment that saves babies’ lives, has donated plasma one last time.

Harrison, known as “the man with a golden arm,” has donated blood and plasma regularly for more than six decades, from age 18 to age 81. All told, he donated 1,173 times — 1,163 from his right arm, 10 from his left.

James Harrison’s blood plasma has saved over 2.4 million (yes, million) fetuses and infants.

How it all started

After life-threatening lung surgery at age 14, which left him hospitalized for three months. His life was saved thanks to transfusions of donated blood plasma. He made a commitment to pay it back.

Doctors aren’t exactly sure why Harrison has this rare blood type, but they think it might be from the transfusions he received when he was 14, after his surgery. That’s probably what happened to Harrison. And he made the best of the mistake by voluntarily donating life-saving plasma for many years.

However, because of Australia’s regulations for blood donations, he had to wait until he was 18. Even so, he stayed true to his word.

On 11 May 2018 he made his 1173rd donation – his last, as Australian policy prohibits blood donations from those past age 81.

Harrison’s blood plasma is called “Golden”

What is so special about his donations?

Harrison’s blood contains a rare antibody that’s used to make a medication called anti-D immunoglobulin, also known as Rh immunoglobulin. This medication is given to mothers who are at risk for something called “Rh incompatibility” with their fetus, which means the mothers’ immune system may attack and destroy the fetus’s red blood cells.

In Australia, up until about 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year, doctors didn’t know why, and it was awful. Women were having numerous miscarriages, and babies were being born with brain damage. The babies, it turned out, were suffering from hemolytic disease of the newborn, or HDN. The condition most often arises when a woman with an Rh-negative blood type becomes pregnant with a baby who has Rh-positive blood, and the incompatibility causes the mother’s body to reject the fetus’s red blood cells.

When this happens, you end up with a situation where a lot of these babies would have a significant amount of their red cells broken down while they were in the womb. This can lead to serious complications for the newborn, including brain damage, jaundice or even stillbirth etc.

Probably my only talent is that I can be a blood donor.

James Christopher Harrison

We all have probably heard that our blood type is “positive” or “negative.” This refers to a protein called the “Rh factor” on the surface of red blood cells. When people have this protein, they are said to be “Rh positive,” whereas if they lack the protein, they are “Rh negative.” For most people, whether they are Rh positive or Rh negative won’t make a huge difference in their lives, Aftab said. But for pregnant women, there can be problems when the mother is Rh negative but the fetus is Rh positive.

That’s because if the baby’s Rh-positive blood cells leak into the mother’s bloodstream, the mother’s immune system sees the Rh-positive blood cells as “foreign” and makes antibodies again them. These antibodies can then cross the placenta and break down the fetus’s red blood cells. In the developing world, such Rh incompatibility is one of the leading causes of illness and mortality in newborns.

Every bag of blood is precious, but James’ blood is particularly extraordinary. His blood is actually used to make a life-saving medication, given to moms whose blood is at risk of attacking their unborn babies. Every batch of Anti-D that has ever been made in Australia has come from James’ blood.

Every ampul of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it.

Harrison needed to stop donating blood because he is past the age limit for blood donors in Australia, and the Australian Red Cross said he should stop donating to protect his health.

One of the rare thing about the James Harrison is he is so humble. He thinks his donations are the same as anybody else’s. He doesn’t think he’s remarkable.

I hope it’s a record that somebody breaks, because it will mean they are dedicated to the cause

James Christopher Harrison

The team at ReckonTalk salutes Mr. James Christopher Harrison for this invaluable selfless contribution to this cosmopolitan mortal world.