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Meet the man who donated blood every week for 60 years saving the lives of 2.4 million babies

James Harrison's blood contains a rare antibody necessary to develop an injection called Anti-D, which helps fight against rhesus disease.

Meet the man who donated blood every week for 60 years saving the lives of 2.4 million babies
Cover Image Source: Australian Red Cross Lifeblood

James Harrison was 14 when he had major chest surgery. He needed a significant amount of strangers' blood to come out of it alive and once recovered, he pledged to become a blood donor himself. True to his word, as soon as he became an adult, Harrison began paying forward the sacrifice that saved his life. Over the next six decades, he suppressed his strong distaste for needles—turning away whenever one was inserted into his arm—and donated his blood every few weeks at locations across Australia. Over 2.4 million babies got a new lease on life thanks to him, the "Man With the Golden Arm."



 

 

Officials at the Australian Red Cross Blood Service revealed that Harrison had been donating blood for over a decade when medical professionals discovered that his blood contained a rare antibody necessary to develop an injection called Anti-D, which helps fight against rhesus disease. According to CNN, this disease is a condition where the red blood cells of babies with certain blood types that are different from their mothers' are destroyed. It occurs when a pregnant woman has rhesus-negative blood (RhD negative) and the baby in her womb has rhesus-positive blood (RhD positive), inherited from its father. If the mother has been sensitized to rhesus-positive blood—commonly by a previous pregnancy with a rhesus-positive baby—her body might produce antibodies that destroy the baby's "foreign" blood cells. This potentially fatal condition can result in brain damage, or death, for the babies.



 

 

Anti-D injections, produced with Harrison's antibodies, prevent women with rhesus-negative blood from developing RhD antibodies during pregnancy. Officials estimate that more than three million doses of the medication have been issued to Australian mothers with negative blood types since 1967. "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," Jemma Falkenmire, of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, told CNN in 2015. "Australia was one of the first countries to discover a blood donor with this antibody, so it was quite revolutionary at the time."



 

 

Doctors aren't exactly sure why Harrison has this rare blood type but they believe it might have something to do with the blood he received as a teenager. He is one of about 50 people in Australia known to have these antibodies. "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." said Falkenmire. "And more than 17% of women in Australia are at risk, so James has helped save a lot of lives."



 

 

One of the women who benefited from Harrison's blood is his daughter, Tracey Mellowship, reports The New York Times. "Thank you dad for giving me the chance to have two healthy children — your grandchildren," she reportedly wrote in a comment on a Facebook post about her father. "That resulted in my second grandson being born healthy," said Harrison of his daughter receiving the Anti-D injection. "And that makes you feel good yourself that you saved a life there, and you saved many more and that's great."



 

 

When Harrison gave his last blood donation two years ago (you can't donate blood past the age of 81 in Australia), it marked the end of a monumental chapter. Four silver balloons shaped in the numerals 1 1 7 3—the total number of times he's given blood—danced above him as took his seat at Town Hall Blood Donor Center in Sydney for the last time. "The Red Cross and Australia can never thank a man like James enough," said Jemma Falkenmire, a spokeswoman for the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. "It's unlikely we will ever have another blood donor willing to make this commitment."



 

 

Harrison is considered a national hero in Australia for his remarkable gift of giving and has won numerous awards for his generosity, including the Medal of the Order of Australia, one of the country's most prestigious honors. "It becomes quite humbling when they say, 'oh you've done this or you've done that or you're a hero,'" Harrison said. "It's something I can do. It's one of my talents, probably my only talent is that I can be a blood donor." He deflected most of the praise with humor and humility, saying, "Blame me for the increase in population." As for how he processes the claim that he's saved millions of babies, he said: "Saving one baby is good. Saving two million is hard to get your head around, but if they claim that's what it is, I'm glad to have done it."



 

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