One Man’s Blood Donations Have Saved Millions of Babies

"I was nearly in tears to see all these little healthy babies in their mother's arms and the mothers thanking you profusely because they wouldn't have been healthy babies had they not received the injection of what I produced"
Andrew Thomas August 28, 2018

Donating blood is a noble way to serve one’s community. This man survived an open-chest surgery that required large blood transfusions, which gave him a unique ability to help others.

James Harrison lives about 40 kilometers north of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia.

Harrison was 14 years old when he underwent a lung operation in 1951.

He suffered from bronchiectasis, a condition in which the walls of the bronchi in the lungs become inflamed and thicken.

As a result, the lung becomes scarred and mucus builds up and does not drain properly, which can cause difficulty breathing.

Harrison required seven units of blood during his operation to remove one of his lungs.

(Courtesy of Tara Delia)

The operation was a success, and Harrison grew up to be healthy adult.

His father was a blood donor, and told him about blood donation. When Harrison turned 18, be began to donate blood regularly.

Little did he know that the plasma in his blood would become monumental.

Up until 1967, the miscarriage and birth defect rates in Australia were alarmingly high.

Doctors and researchers determined that a condition called Hemolytic Disease of the Newborn (HDN) was responsible.

HDN can occur when a mother with Rh-negative blood has a child with an Rh-positive father. The mother’s blood cells reject the baby’s Rh-positive red blood cells, which can lead to a miscarriage.

Red blood cells. (Pixabay)

Usually, HDN occurs during the second pregnancy, as the woman’s body has developed antibodies from the first pregnancy to attack the Rh-positive red blood cells of the second baby.

Doctors believe that as a result of so many blood transfusions, Harrison’s plasma contained a rare antibody called Anti-D that could counteract the effects of HDN.

Researchers looked through multiple blood banks in Australia for a donor who might have Anti-D in his plasma, and they discovered Harrison.

In December 1966, the doctor in charge of the blood bank called Harrison into his office to ask if the researchers could use his plasma to see if it would be effective in an injection against HDN.

Harrison had no reservations.

“They needed it. They explained what was going to happen and what they had hopes for. And I thought that was great because I didn’t have any children at that stage. I had no adverse reactions to it,” Harrison told Humanity.

It turned out that Harrison’s plasma antibodies were effective in developing an injection that would prevent women from having a miscarriage after their first pregnancy.

Harrison has provided 1,163 donations from his right arm and 10 out of his left arm since 1967.

“That’s how I got the nickname the Man with the Golden Arm because I used the one arm all the time,” Harrison explained.

(Courtesy of Tara Delia)

Harrison is now 81, and is no longer medically permitted to donate blood. He made his last donation on Friday, May 11, 2018.

That Friday the Red Cross had a little party for Harrison, mothers, and newborns.

“About 10 mothers came in. It was quite sad. I was nearly in tears to see all these little healthy babies in their mother’s arms and the mothers thanking you profusely because they wouldn’t have been healthy babies had they not received the injection of what I produced,” Harrison recalled.

Harrison’s donations were able to help his daughter Tracy have healthy children. After Tracy gave birth to Jarrod, she received an injection containing Harrison’s Anti-D.

Tracy had a second healthy baby name Scott, who turned 23 years old on Monday, May 21, 2018.

The Australian Red Cross blood bank estimates that Harrison’s donations have saved 2.5 million babies.

(Courtesy of Tara Delia)

“It’s quite a humbling experience really. A great feeling that your life has meant something to other people as well as yourself,” Harrison explained.

Doctors will have to find other donors with the antibody that produces Anti-D. It’s critical that more people donate so doctors and researchers can find more donors with Anti-D.

“Get out there, roll up your sleeve, and become a blood donor,” Harrison said.