One Australian is taking a well-deserved retirement — after saving 2.4 million babies.

James Harrison.

James Harrison.
Image credits Australian Red Cross Blood Service / Facebook.

James Harrison, an 81-year-old Australian man whose blood contains a rare and priceless antibody has donated his last bag of plasma. Despite being a few months over the legal age limit for donors, Harrison has been allowed one final transfusion on Friday, both in recognition of his merits, and, likely, in a testament to just how valuable his blood is — Harrison’s transfusions helped save the lives of some 2.4 million babies, according to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service.

Lifeblood

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Harrison has donated regularly for more than six decades, between the age of 18 to 81. Over the years, he donated 1,173 times, 1,163 from his right arm, and 10 from his left one.

His drive to donate has its roots in Harrison’s own medical history. At the age of 14, he had one lung removed, and required multiple transfusions. After receiving 2 gallons (7.5 liters) of blood, roughly 13 transfusion units, Harrison became aware of just how important donating is — and decided he would pitch in.

“I was in the hospital for three months and I had 100 stitches,” he recalls. “I was always looking forward to donating, right from the operation, because I don’t know how many people it took to save my life. I never met them, didn’t know them.”

After he started donating blood at the age of 18, doctors discovered that his plasma had a rare component that could save infant lives. That component is an antibody known as Rho(D) immune globulin, which is essentially priceless for doctors. Here’s why.

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When a woman with Rh-negative blood is pregnant with an Rh-positive fetus, both are at risk from ‘Rh incompatibility’ — the mother’s body can have an immune reaction to and attack the infant’s blood cells, putting it at risk. The disease causes multiple miscarriages, stillbirths, and brain damage or fatal anemia in newborns.

The antibodies persist between pregnancies and can jeopardize future pregnancies as well. The first treatment for Rh incompatibility was developed in the 1960s, and it’s based entirely on this Rho(D) immune globulin. Harrison just happened to be one person who naturally produced this antibody — and his body produced a lot of it.

“Very few people have the these antibodies in such strong concentrations,” Jemma Falkenmire, of the Australian Red Cross Blood Donor Service, told the Herald. “His body produces a lot of them, and when he donates his body produces more.”

Harrison switched to donating plasma as often as the Blood Service would allow him. His donations allowed millions of Australian women to undergo the treatment they needed to keep their pregnancies healthy.

Despite significant efforts to synthesize the antibody in a lab setting, donors remain our only source of Rho(D) remains. The antibodies are most often seen in some women with Rh-incompatible pregnancies — but the more wide-spread treatment against the condition becomes, the fewer mothers get a chance to develop Rho(D). Some Rh-negative men agree to be exposed to Rh-positive blood in a bid to become donors and fill the supply gap. Finally, a small number of people develop the antibodies after accidentally receiving a transfusion of the wrong kind of blood. Harrison, one of only 200 Rho(D) donors in Australia, is likely one of the latter cases.

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His dedication to donating blood, and all the lives his plasma helped save, have earned him the moniker of “Man with the Golden Arm” and a place in the Guinness Book of Records. He’s now too old to be allowed to donate further — and says it’s time for other people to step up.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re a hero,’ ” he told NPR. “But I’m in a safe room, donating blood. They give me a cup of coffee and something to nibble on. And then I just go on my way. No problem, no hardship.”

“I hope it’s a record that somebody breaks,” Harrison told the Blood Service, referring to the impressive number of donations under his belt.

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