'Man With The Golden Arm' Retires From Donating Blood After Saving 2.4 Million Lives

James Harrison's blood provided scientists with a rare antibody that's saved the lives of millions of babies over the last 60 years.

Everyone's well aware that donating blood can help save lives. According to Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), one single blood donation can save three lives, while one plasma donation can save 18. Thus, when you add up James Harrison's regular blood donations over the past 60 years, the 81-year-old, dubbed the "Man with the Golden Arm," has saved the lives of more than 2.4 million babies.

After making 1,173 blood and plasma donations over the past six decades, Harrison made his final contribution last Friday at the recommendation of his doctor. As he told reporters from The Sydney Morning Herald during his final blood draw, "It's a sad day for me. The end of a long run."

Harrison has become notorious for his plasma, as it contains the potent antibody necessary for Anti-D treatment, which protects unborn babies from the potentially deadly Rhesus D haemolytic disease (HDN). When pregnant women with an Rh negative blood type find themselves carrying a baby with Rh positive blood, their bodies respond to the baby's red blood cells as if they're a foreign threat, ultimately producing antibodies designed to destroy this so-called invader. If left untreated, this condition can lead to miscarriages, stillbirths, brain damage, or fatal anaemia.

However, in the 1960s, Australian scientists discovered that injecting these mothers with low levels of donated RhD immunoglobulin can help alleviate the issue as the antibodies "mop up" Rh+ blood cells without harming the baby. Because Harrison naturally produces this rare combination of RhD-negative blood and Rh+ antibodies, The Sydney Morning Herald writes, this makes him an ideal donor.

"Every ampule of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it," Robyn Barlow, the Rh program coordinator who recruited Harrison, told The Sydney Morning Herald. "Since the very first mother received her dose at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1967. It's an enormous thing ... He has saved millions of babies. I cry just thinking about it," she added.

Scientists believe Harrison's rare situation stems from the 13 units of blood transfusions he received after undergoing major chest surgery when he was 14 years old. Thus, Harrison was more than eager to participate when asked to join the Anti-D program, as it was his way of giving back. "They asked me to be a guinea pig, and I've been donating ever since," he said.

According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Harrison donated 500-800ml of blood plasma almost every week. But, because Australia's Anti-D program only has 160 donors, The Blood Service has started a three-year research project to harvest Harrison's DNA, ushering the overarching program into its next phase. 

Yet, while Harrison might not be able to give blood any longer, both he and The Blood Service encourage others to help the one in five pregnant women who require blood aid by making donations of their own. After all, his one life has given life to so many others and, by making even the occasional donation, you can change the fate of someone in need, as well.

Cover screenshot via GagliardiImages / Shutterstock.

(H/T: The Sydney Morning Herald)


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