James Harrison is being called “the man with the golden arm” for his lifelong act of service that has saved millions of infants.
James Harrison is a father and grandfather in Australia. He likes to collect stamps and go for walks along the coast. But every week — for the past 60 years — Harrison has done something extraordinary.
He has donated blood plasma.
With this seemingly simple act of compassion and community service, Harrison has singlehandedly saved the lives of about 2 million babies in Australia. And it’s all because he himself was saved by blood donations from strangers following lung surgery when he was 14 years old.
“In 1951, I had a chest operation where they removed a lung — and I was 14,” the now 78-year-old Harrison told CNN. “When I came out of the operation, or a couple days after, my father was explaining what had happened. He said I had (received) 13 units (liters) of blood, and my life had been saved by unknown people. He was a donor himself, so I said when I’m old enough, I’ll become a blood donor.”
After he started donating blood, doctors discovered something unusual. Harrison’s blood contained an antibody for something that was killing thousands of babies every year without any known cure: Rhesus disease, “a condition where a pregnant woman’s blood actually starts attacking her unborn baby’s blood cells. In the worst cases it can result in brain damage, or death, for the babies.”
Harrison began working with doctors in the 1960s to use the antibodies in his blood to develop an injection called Anti-D, given to pregnant women with rhesus-negative blood to protect their unborn children.
Together with the Anti-D injection, Harrison’s weekly donations are being credited with saving the lives of more than 2 million Australian children over the past 60 years.
Harrison says one thing has never changed in the more than 1,000 times a needle has been inserted into his arm to draw out blood: “Never once have I watched the needle go in my arm,” he told CNN. “I look at the ceiling or the nurses, maybe talk to them a bit, but never once have I watched the needle go in my arm. I can’t stand the sight of blood, and I can’t stand pain.”
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Photo: Vital Signs/CNN