A regular blood donation can save three lives, and a plasma donation can save 18 lives. But this man from Australia has saved 2.4 million lives! How can this be possible?
James Harrison has extraordinary blood. His plasma contains an antibody (Anti-D) that can treat Rhesus D Haemolytic Disease (HDN) in unborn babies.
All his life, for 60 years, he has made 1173 donations and today was his final one:
“It’s a sad day for me. The end of a long run,” he said as he was making his last blood donation at the Town Hall Donor Centre.
Rhesus D Haemolytic Disease
The disease occurs in pregnant women with Rh-negative blood. If their baby has Rh-positive blood, then the mother’s body considers the unborn baby a threat, associating it with a virus or a bacteria. The antibodies work to destroy the threat. It causes miscarriages or still births. Newborns that get to be born can suffer from brain damage or fatal anemia.
In the 1960s, Australian scientists made a breakthrough discovery. They realized they could administer Anti-D to mothers and save the babies. The mothers only needed a transfusion with low levels of RhD immunoglobulin.
The Ideal Donor
Here is where Mr. Harrison comes to save the day. His body produces a combination of RhD-negative blood and Rh+ antibodies. Robyn Barlow is the Rh program coordinator and has recruited James, the first donor, decades ago:
“Every ampule of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it.” She continues saying that in 1967, James saved the first baby at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Robyn said that:
“It’s an enormous thing … He has saved millions of babies. I cry just thinking about it.”
Jemma Falkenmire with the Australian Red Cross Blood Donor Service said that Mr. Harrison’s blood is scarce:
“His body produces a lot of them and when he donates his body produces more.”
The Gift of Life
Scientists think that this rare blood could be from the time when Mr. Harrison received 13 units of blood transfusion when he was a teenager and had to get a major chest surgery. When he was asked to join the Anti-D program, Mr. Harrison was happy to give back the help he received as a child:
“They asked me to be a guinea pig, and I’ve been donating ever since,” Mr. Harrison said.
In Australia, 17% of the pregnant women have received Anti-D, and even Mr. Harrison’s daughter got it.
Each week, the “man with the golden arm,” as people call the 81-year-old, has donated 500-800ml of blood plasma.
He now has to retire, as he reached the donor age limit and everyone wanted to protect his health. However, Mr. Harrison said:
“I’d keep on going if they’d let me. It really is the gift of life.”
Andre Blair s is the lead editor for Advocator.ca. He holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Toronto, and a Master of Science in Public Health (M.S.P.H.) from the School of Public Health, Department of Health Administration, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Andre specializes in environmental health, but writes on a variety of issues.