Any person who saves the life of a fellow human being may rightfully be called a hero. By that measure, James Harrison, an 81-year-old resident of Australia, should be counted among history’s greatest heroes.
“The Man with the Golden Arm” has helped save the lives of 2.4 million babies by donating his blood 1,100 times, reports Livescience.com. He made his final donation in 2018 after giving blood for more than six decades.
Harrison’s unique blood type enabled him to save unborn babies who risked developing “Rh incompatibility” with their mothers, a condition in which the mother’s immune system destroy’s her fetus’s red blood cells. Harrison’s blood contains a rare antibody which can treat Rh incompatibility: Doctors extracted the antibody from Harrison’s blood samples and used it to manufacture the medication Rh immunoglobulin, which can prevent Rh incompatibility.
Without the medication, Rh incompatibility can lead to “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,” explained Dr. Saima Aftab, who directs the Fetal Care Center at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. Untreated Rh incompatibility can cause fetal jaundice, brain damage, or even stillbirth, Aftab said. Aftab considers the treatment for Rh incompatibility “one of the biggest life-saving discoveries of the last century.”
The antibody used to make Rh immunoglobulin, however, remains relatively rare. The Australian Red Cross estimates that only 200 blood donors contribute antibodies to the country’s Rh immunoglobulin supply. Thankfully, one of those donors was The Man with the Golden Arm. Harrison contributed blood to every batch of Rh immunoglobulin Australia has ever produced, according to CNN.
Doctors believe Harrison developed the unique antibody when he received a large blood transfusion as a teenager. Subsequently, “his immune system revved up a high concentration of antibodies,” explained Aftab.
Harrison stopped donating blood last year because Australia does not accept donations from individuals over 80. The Australian Red Cross also urged him to stop giving blood in order to safeguard his health. After 60 years on the job, Harrison has surely earned the right to retire.