At a glance, James Harrison strikes us as your average guy, as ordinary as they come. He’s an 85 year old loving father and grandfather, who tucks his shirt in his pants and likes to stroll along the beachline, close to his home in New South Wales, Australia. But in his case, it’s literally what’s under the surface that makes him extraordinary.
At the age of 14, back in 1951, James had to undergo major chest surgery due to a problem in his lungs. Such a brutal procedure eventually led to him being the recipient of no less than 13 units of blood. That transfusion ended up saving his life. Right then and there he vowed to pay it forward and become a blood donor as soon as he came of legal age, which was 18 at the time. And so he did.
Around the 1960’s, all across the world doctors were trying to figure out why thousands of pregnancies were resulting in miscarriages. It turns out these babies were suffering from the hemolytic disease of the newborn or HDM. Essentially, it’s an blood compatibility issue, which causes the mothers antibodies to attack the fetus and can cause brain damage, stillbirth or miscarriage.
The condition develops when a pregnant woman has rhesus-negative blood (RhD negative) and the baby in her womb has rhesus-positive blood (RhD positive), inherited from its father.
If the mother has been sensitized to rhesus-positive blood, usually during a previous pregnancy with an rhesus-positive baby, she may produce antibodies that destroy the baby's "foreign" blood cells. The likelihood of developing this incompatibility depends on several things, from ethnicity to day to day risk factors. The highest risk is for caucasian women, not only from a genetic standpoint but also because studies show an Rh-negative woman has an 85% chance of copulating with an Rh-positive man.
Today, this disease is fought with a simple injection, created from the plasma of people with a very specific antibody. That’s where James comes in.
In 1966, in spite of being aware of the problem, the scientific community had yet failed to find a cure. That’s when James gets a call from a doctor that had access to his data, asking him to be a guinea pig and not for his blood, but his plasma - it boasted copious amounts of the so-called “Anti-D” antibody, essential to creating the injection. James accepted in a heartbeat.
And so begins the tale of “The Man with the Golden Arm”. Today, James is 85. He was a blood and plasma donor until his 81st birthday, the maximum allowed by law. In 1966, the doctor that had called him and his colleagues were able to create the cure that would help 17% or pregnant women in Australia alone, until this very day. Every dose of “Anti-D” were made from James’s plasma. He’s the current holder of the Guiness world record for blood donations: 1173 donations, 1163 on his right arm, only 10 on his left arm. Why such an uneven distribution? James explains: “When they harvest from my right arm, I don’t feel a thing. On my left arm I feel everything, the blood going through. It’s quite unpleasant. I’d rather they take it out of my right arm.”
A man of staggering humility, James is acclaimed as a national hero and has received just about every award there is, including the Order of Australia Medal, which is equivalent to a knighthood. When confronted with it, he quickly dismisses all titles and medals. “It’s the least I could do. They are giving me praise and calling me a hero for sitting down for 20 minutes and getting a light snack at the end.” James is living proof that courage is not the absence of fear - he’s afraid of needles! “I don’t like needles. I never once watched the needle go into my arm. I’ve looked at the nurses, at the ceiling, at the people in the bed next door… anywhere. Never at my arm.”
On James’s last donation, he was actually able to meet some of the people he has helped. His candure, as well as his peculiar sense of humor, did not go unnoticed: “It was a sad day on friday, when I made my last donation. They had a party for me, with balloons, etc. About ten mothers came in with their babies and they all thanked me, which was quite a humbling experience, really, because in the past I know one lady had thirteen children since she got the injections, so she probably blames me for the overpopulation.”
Attempts to create a synthetic version have so far failed. The Australian blood service recently started a three-year research project to harvest James’s DNA and create a library of his monoclonals – the cocktail of antibodies and white blood cells that promise to usher in a new phase in the Anti-D program.
“It’s good to be able to return something to the community, even ordinary people who have ordinary red blood. Because they make one donation, they are saving three lives, and if they make plasma donations, they can save up to 18 lives. So, as I always say, the life you save can be your own and an hour of your time could be a lifetime for somebody else.”