James Harrison of Sydney, Australia, had an eleven-hour surgery to remove one of his lungs when he was only fourteen years old. He received 13 units of life-saving blood during surgery, all of which were donated by strangers.
When James awoke from surgery, his father informed him of the donations that had restored his life. His initial reaction was one of gratitude for everyone who rolled up their sleeves and selflessly assisted a stranger in need.
He made the decision right then and there to start giving blood as soon as he turned eighteen.
James kept his promise, donating nearly every single week of his life for the next sixty years.
In a strange twist of fate, when James went to donate blood after he turned eighteen, he found out that his blood type is incredibly rare — possibly thanks to those 13 units of blood he received as a young man.
Scientists discovered in 1967 that James’ blood contains unusual disease-fighting antibodies not seen in the blood of most people. They realized that his unusual blood might be used to develop an injectable called Anti-D that protects pregnant women from rhesus disease after extensive investigation.
Rhesus disease is a condition in which a pregnant woman’s blood attacks the blood cells of her unborn child. It can cause the baby’s brain damage or possibly death.
“In Australia, up until about 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year, doctors didn’t know why, and it was awful. Women were having numerous miscarriages and babies were being born with brain damage,” said Jemma Falkenmire, of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. “Australia was one of the first countries to discover a blood donor with this antibody, so it was quite revolutionary at the time.”
When James discovered that his blood could benefit infants, he increased his donation frequency and has never stopped. He drove to the blood donation facility every week to donate a bag of his precious blood so that moms like Kristy Pastor, who tested positive for rhesis throughout her pregnancy, could have four healthy children.
James’ blood even saved his own grandchild after his daughter was identified as having the disease, too.
“Every bag of blood is precious, but James’ blood is particularly extraordinary,” Jemma explained. “His blood is actually used to make a life-saving medication, given to moms whose blood is at risk of attacking their unborn babies. Every batch of Anti-D that has ever been made in Australia has come from James’ blood, and more than 17% of women in Australia are at risk, so James has helped save a lot of lives.”
As it turns out, “a lot of lives” is an understatement. Since James started donating, he has saved an estimated 2.4 million babies. James is considered a national hero in Australia, where they call him the “Man With The Golden Arm.” He has won several awards for his humanitarian spirit and generous nature, including the Medal of the Order of Australia, one of the country’s greatest honors.
Yet for James, he’s just doing what he knows is right.
“It becomes quite humbling when they say, ‘oh, you’ve done this or you’ve done that or you’re a hero,” James said. “It’s something I can do. It’s one of my talents, probably my only talent is that I can be a blood donor.”
James is no longer donating blood because he has reached the age restriction for safe donations at the age of eighty-one. His retirement, he and the researchers’ hope, would encourage others to join him in donating blood. Blood is a valuable resource that is always in short supply, and no one knows who will be the next hero to carry the rare antibodies required to make Anti-D.
“All we can do is hope that someone out there will be gracious enough to do it in the way he has,” Jemma added.
Thank you, James Harrison, for helping so many people during your life, all while asking nothing in return. You are truly an inspiration to us all.
Please share this story to encourage everyone you know to give the precious gift of life, blood donation, today. You just never know if you are the person who is meant to carry on in James’ footsteps and save the lives of children around the world.