When James Harrison of Sydney, Australia, was just fourteen, he had an eleven-hour surgery to remove one of his lungs. During surgery, he was given 13 units of life-saving blood, all donated by complete strangers.
After James woke up after surgery, his father told him about the donations that had given him his life back. His immediate response was gratitude for all of the people who rolled up their sleeves and selflessly helped a stranger in need.
He decided right then and there that as soon as he turned eighteen, he’d start giving blood, too.
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.
In 1967, scientists discovered that James’s blood has unique, disease-fighting antibodies not found in most people’s blood. After substantial research, they discovered that his special blood could be used to create an injection called Anti-D, which protects pregnant women from rhesus disease.
Rhesus disease is a condition where a pregnant woman’s blood starts attacking her unborn baby’s blood cells. It can result in brain damage or even death for the baby.
“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 learned that his blood could help babies, he stepped up his donation schedule— and never stopped. Each week, he drove to the blood donation center to give a bag of his precious blood so that mothers like Kristy Pastor, who tested positive for rhesis during her pregnancies, could give birth to 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.”
Now that James has turned eighty-one, he’s hit the age limit for safe donations, so he’s retiring from donating blood. He and researchers all hope that his retirement will inspire others to step up and start donating blood too. Not only is blood a precious resource that is always in demand, but no one knows who will be the next hero to carry the special antibodies needed to produce Anti-D.
“All we can do is hope there will be people out there generous enough to do it, and selflessly in the way he’s done,” Jemma said.
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.