The 78-year-old James Harrison, dubbed as “The Man with the Golden Arm” had become Australia’s national hero for saving 2 million babies through donating his own plasma.
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. 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. 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.
Falkenmire called Harrison “irreplaceable”, however, 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. 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,” said Falkenmire.