'The Man with the Golden Arm' retires after his 1,173 blood donations helped save 2.4M babies

On Friday, James Harrison, age 81, sat in a blood donation chair for the final time, giving the last of his record-setting 1,173 donations that the Australian Red Cross Blood Service estimates have helped save 2.4 million babies, Amy Wang writes for the Washington Post's "To Your Health."

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How it all began

Harrison, who is nicknamed "The Man with the Golden Arm," has been donating blood regularly since he was 18 years old. Harrison's blood donation journey began in 1951, when Harrison (then 14 years old) underwent a major chest operation that required the removal of one of his lungs and led him to receive a large amount of transfused blood. Four years later, when he turned 18—the minimum age for donating blood to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service—Harrison sat down for his first donation, averting his eyes from the needle and squeezing a stress relief ball.

More than a decade into his blood donation journey, Robyn Barlow, an Rh program coordinator, discovered that Harrison's blood contained a rare antibody that scientists had just discovered could save the lives of babies with hemolytic disease of the newborn (HDN). HDN occurs when a woman with Rh-negative blood becomes pregnant with a baby who has Rh-positive blood and the mother's body reject's the red blood cells in the fetus. According to Jemma Falkenmire of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, "literally thousands of babies [were] dying each year," and doctors had no idea why until the HDN discovery.

Scientists approached Harrison to participate in what eventually became known as the Anti-D Program. Using plasma from Harrison's blood, doctors were able to create life-saving injections called Anti-D injections. "They asked me to be a guinea pig, and I've been donating ever since," Harrison said.

A world record

Over the course of the next 60 years, Harrison continued to regularly donate blood. According to the Australian Red Cross, since around 17% of pregnant women in Australia need Anti-D injections, it's estimated that Harrison's donations have helped save the lives of 2.4 million babies.

"Every ampul of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it," Barlow said, adding, "He has saved millions of babies. I cry just thinking about it."

Now, at age 81, Harrison is over the age limit to continue donating blood, and to protect his health the Australian Red Cross decided it was time for Harrison to retire. Friday, marked Harrison's 1,173rd donation—a world record that Harrison said he hopes to see beaten.

According to "To Your Health," about 200 Australian donors now qualify for the Anti-D program. But Barlow said that extensive donations such as Harrison's are rare. "We'll never see his kind again. That he has been well and fit and his veins strong enough to continue to donate for so long is very, very rare" (Wang, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 5/12).

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