James Harrison, 78, has been dubbed “The Man with the Golden Arm” and a national hero in Australia for saving 2 million newborns’ lives by donating his plasma, Fox 13 Now reported.
Harrison, who lives near Australia’s central coast, has a rare blood type in his right arm that contains life-saving antibodies. Doctors suspect he developed the antibody during a chest operation when he was 14, when doctors removed a lung.
When his father told him other, unknown people’s blood donations saved his life, Harrison vowed to do the same once he was allowed to, at age 18 in Australia. Every week for the past 60 years, doctors have used his antibodies to create the vaccine Anti-D, which is used to treat pregnant women with a blood disease that can lead to birth complications. He has donated his plasma more than 1,000 times.
“In Australia, up until about 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year. Doctors didn’t know why, and it was awful,” Jemma Falkenmire, of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, told CNN. “Women were having numerous miscarriages, and babies were being born with brain damage.”
The condition, Rhesus disease, occurs when a pregnant woman’s blood essentially begins attacking her unborn child’s blood cells. It occurs when a pregnant woman has rhesus-negative (RhD negative) blood and her baby has rhesus-positive (RhD positive) blood inherited from his or her father. If a RhD-negative mother becomes exposed to the RhD positive blood— typically during a previous pregnancy with a RhD positive child— she may produce antibodies that eradicate the RhD-positive baby’s foreign blood cells.
The Anti-D vaccine effectively prevents women with RhD negative blood from developing RhD antibodies during pregnancy.
In Australia, where 17 percent of women are at risk of Rhesus disease, Harrison has been the sole donor of these antibodies, saving millions of babies’ lives in the country, but also around the world. His own daughter ended up needing Anti-D, which resulted in his second grandson being born healthy.
“It makes you feel good yourself that you’ve saved a life there, and you’ve saved many more— and that’s great,” Harrison, who added he does not see himself as a hero, told CNN.
Falkenmire called Harrison “irreplaceable” but said the Australian Red Cross Blood Service is hoping another donor with the antibodies will come forward. Harrison can donate blood for only three more years, as the age limit in Australia is 81.
“I don’t think anyone will be able to do what he’s done, but certainly we do need people to step into his shoes,” she said. “He will have to retire in the next couple years, and I guess for us the hope is there will be people who will donate, who will also … have this antibody and become life-savers in the same way he has, and all we can do is hope there will be people out there generous enough to do it, and selflessly in the way he’s done.”