James Harrison is being celebrated as the most prolific blood donor in the world.
The 81-year-old Australian made a promise when he was 14 — that he would begin donating blood as often as possible as soon as he was legally able. The pledge was prompted by surgery he’d received then, requiring 13 liters of life-giving blood.
Soon after Harrison began donating in 1954, his blood was discovered to contain unusually strong and persistent antibodies used to develop an injection called Anti-D, which helps fight against rhesus disease.
Rhesus occurs when a mother with RhD negative blood carries a baby with RhD positive blood, inherited from the father. In such an instance, the mother’s body produces antigens to destroy what it senses as a foreign threat — the baby’s red blood cells.
The disease, HDN, can be devastating. It may result in miscarriages, still births, brain damage, or fatal anaemia in newborns, and has killed thousands of Australian babies every year.
Harrison’s weekly blood donations since then have saved the lives of an estimated 2.4 million babies and earned him the moniker. “the man with the golden arm,” The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
But Friday marked Harrison’s final donation. In Australia, blood donors must ordinarily be under the age of 71.
“It’s a sad day for me,” Harrison told The Sydney Morning Herald. “The end of a long run.”
It was a long and a good one. He made it another 10 years before physicians made him stop for the sake of his own health.
Harrison’s interview was being conducted at the Town Hall Donor Centre, where his final donation could save three lives. His plasma could save as many as 18.
Harrison is the ultimate donor, because his blood has the unusual combination of RhD-negative blood and Rh+ antibodies.
“Every ampule of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it, since the very first mother received her dose at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1967,” Rh program coordinator Robyn Barlow told the newspaper.
“It’s an enormous thing. … He has saved millions of babies. I cry just thinking about it,” she added.
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