James Harrison, an 81-year-old Australian man, has saved the lives of more than two million babies by donating blood plasma from his "golden arm." He may look like a regular man on the surface, but he has a rare antibody flowing in his veins that can be — and has been — used for lifesaving medication. But the reason why he's given so much to so many people — 1,173 donations, to be exact — makes us pretty sure he has a heart of gold, too.
His motivation to donate began when he was just 14 years old, as he told CNN. At that young age, he had a serious chest surgery that involved the removal of one of his lungs. A couple days after his operation, his father explained to him that he had received 13 liters of blood from unknown donors, which ultimately helped save his life.
"I said, 'When I'm old enough, I'll become a blood donor,'" Harrison recalled. And that's exactly what he did once he turned 18.
Shortly after he became a donor, doctors informed him that he could potentially help with a serious health crisis happening in his country.
"In Australia, up until about 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year," said Jemma Falkenmire of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. "Doctors didn't know why, and it was awful."
Experts know now that it was because of rhesus disease, a horrible condition where the antibodies in a pregnant woman's blood cells start destroying her unborn child's blood cells. This disease happens when the mother has a blood type called rhesus negative (RhD negative) and the baby in her womb has rhesus positive (RhD positive). Although the condition doesn't harm the mother, it can be fatal for the baby.
That's where Harrison and his "extraordinary" blood came in, as Falkenmire put it. Because Harrison has an unusual antibody in his blood, doctors were able to use it in the late 1960s to create an injection called Anti-D, which prevents RhD negative women from developing the RhD antibodies while they're pregnant — and thus from unknowingly harming their babies. No more than 50 people in Australia were known to have blood like his that could help these women and their unborn kids. That's why he donated so many times.
Doctors aren't entirely sure why Harrison has this unusual antibody in his blood, but they suspect it might come from the many blood transfusions he received as a youngster. Regardless of how it happened, experts are immensely grateful for the valuable help he's given them.
Now into his 80s, Harrison has passed the age limit to be a donor. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the blood service decided that Harrison should cease donation for the sake of his own health. He's already excited for someone else to fill his shoes and surpass his number of donations someday. That said, he's still amazed at what he's done to clear that path for others.
"Saving one baby is good," Harrison said this week, shortly after his final donation. "Saving two million is hard to get your head around, but if they claim that’s what it is, I’m glad to have done it."
What a hero!
h/t Washington Post