If saving the life of 1 baby makes you a hero, what does saving the lives of an estimated 2 million babies make you? James Harrison, an Australian national, has done just that. He’s now known as the man with the golden arm.
The Life Saver
How has Mr. Harrison saved the lives of over 2 million babies? His life-saving “magic” is in his blood.
Mr. Harrison has a very unique kind of blood, and for 58 years, he has been donating his unique blood to save the lives of children. His blood is special because he has rare antibody in the plasma of his blood which protects susceptible infants from Rhesus disease. Rhesus disease is an extreme form of anemia. The disease creates an incompatibility between the mother’s blood and her unborn baby’s blood. It’s caused by one having Rh-positive blood and the other having Rh-negative.
Discovering His Super Power
As a child, Mr. Harrison had major chest surgery to extract a lung that succumbed to metastasized pneumonia. Because of this invasive procedure, he required more than 10 liters of blood for infusion. After the surgery, he spent three months in the hospital. While he lay in a hospital bed, he came to the realization that the blood people had donated saved his life. So Mr. Harrison made a pledge to himself to start donating blood as soon as he turned eighteen (the legal age required to donate at the time).
Mr. Harrison has donated over 1,000 times since the first donation he made when he was 18. An amount which sets a world record. After his first few donations, doctors discovered that his blood contained an antibody that prevents infants who receive his blood from dying of Rhesus disease (the deadly form of anemia).
When told about his special blood, Mr. Harrison decided to make it his life’s mission to donate as much blood as he physically could. By following through with his pledge to himself, he became a real life hero. Drug manufacturers now use his blood to harvest the required material to create the Anti-D vaccine.
Bonus Factoid: Rhesus disease vaccines that are derived from James Harrison’s blood are given as treatment to one in ten pregnant women. A vaccine made from his blood was also given to his wife when it was discovered that his daughter suffered from the disease.
Bowman J et al. “Rh-immunization during pregnancy: antenatal prophylaxis”. Canadian Med Journal 118: 623–627
Klein Hg. Haemolytic Disease of the Fetus. Mollison’s Blood Transfusion. 11th Ed. Oxford 2005: 496-545.
Bowman JM. The Prevention of Rh Immunization. Transfus Med Rev 1988; 2: 129-50.