When James Harrison was just 14 years-old, he received a life-saving blood transfusion during an invasive chest surgery. His father, a blood donor, encouraged him to pay it forward when he was old enough to start donating blood himself, and has he ever! Harrison has donated blood every week for the past 60 years — and at the age of 78 his blood has saved over 2 million babies in his homeland of Australia, due to his rare blood type which was probably an unlikely side effect of the transfusion he received. His rare blood type made it possible to create a treatment for a widespread pregnancy complication that, if left untreated, resulted in an unborn baby’s brain damage or even death. Read on to learn more about “The Man with the Golden Arm.”
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Rhesus disease or Rh disease is a rare but deadly pregnancy complication that causes the mother’s cells to attack the baby’s blood cells, often causing brain damage and sometimes resulting in the death of the unborn baby. It happens when a mother’s blood type is incompatible with her unborn child’s, specifically when a rhesus-negative (RhD negative) mother has a rhesus-positive (RhD positive) baby (which is a trait inherited from the father). The disease does not occur in every negative/positive mother/child relationship, but nearly always happens when the mother was previously sensitized to RhD positive cells, typically during a prior pregnancy.
Without the vaccine known as Anti-D, rhesus disease can be devastating. That’s where Harrison’s blood comes in. In the 1960s, it was discovered that his blood has the necessary antibodies, and he worked with doctors to create Anti-D. At the time, Australia was at the forefront of medical research in the field of rhesus treatment, and was one of the first countries to develop the antibody injection.
Harrison has made more than 1,000 plasma donations over his lifetime and continues to donate regularly at 78 years old. He’s known in the medical community as “The Man with the Golden Arm,” because of his unique life-saving blood. Since the vaccine was developed in Australia, over 2 million babies there have been saved from Rh disease. Amazingly, every single dose of Anti-D created in that nation has been made from Harrison’s blood, meaning that his blood donations and his precious antibodies are responsible for saving every single one of those unborn children from a condition their mothers couldn’t foresee or prevent without medical intervention.