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Man Whose Blood Plasma Saved Over 2.4 Million Babies Donates For The Last Time

James Harrison, an 81-year-old Australian man who has been donating his blood for almost 60 years, made his final donation on May 11, 2018. Harrison’s blood plasma contained a high level of antibodies that were used to develop Anti-D, a medication given to expectant mothers who are at risk of developing Rhesus disease.

Rhesus disease, as defined by the National Health Service, is “a condition where antibodies in a pregnant woman’s blood destroy her baby’s blood cells.” The disease is also referred to as hemolytic disease of the newborn or HDN. This disease was particularly prevalent throughout Australia. In 2015, Jemma Falkenmire of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service told CNN: “Up until about 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year, doctors didn’t know why, and it was awful.”

James Harrison pledged to donate blood whenever he could after his own life-threatening experience. When Harrison was only 14, he had to undergo major chest surgery. “When I came out of the operation, or a couple days after, my father was explaining what had happened,” Harrison told CNN, “He said I had [received] 13 [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.”

Staying true to his promise, James Harrison began donating blood in 1954. Shortly after, doctors made the discovery that would save countless lives. They realized that a certain rare antibody in his blood plasma could be used to make a treatment against HDN. They reached out to Harrison and asked if he would take part in the Anti-D program. “They asked me to be a guinea pig, and I’ve been donating ever since,” Harrison told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Doctors suspected that Harrison may have developed the antibodies because of the blood transfusions he received when he was 14, according to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. Harrison is one of no more than 50 people in Australia to have these antibodies. “Every batch of Anti-D that has ever been made in Australia has come from James’ blood,” Falkenmire told CNN, “and more than 17% of women in Australia are at risk, so James has helped save a lot of lives.” The Blood Service estimates that Harrison’s antibodies have saved the lives of 2.4 million babies.

One of those babies happened to be James Harrison’s own grandson. Harrison’s daughter, Tracey Mellowship, required an Anti-D injection in 1992 after she gave birth to her first son. She wrote in a Facebook post in April: “Thanks to dad I then gave birth to another healthy boy in 1995…Thank you dad for giving me the chance to have two healthy children – your grandchildren.” James Harrison, who was given the nickname “the man with the golden arm,” was given a medal of the Order of Australia in 1999, and made his 1000th donation on May 2011. Despite the number of donations Harrison has made, he is still afraid of needles, and can’t watch the clinic staff put one in his arm. “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,” Harrison told CNN, “I can’t stand the sight of blood, and I can’t stand pain.”

At age 81, James Harrison has officially reached the age limit for donations, meaning he can no longer donate his precious plasma. Falkenmire told CNN that she hopes others who have the same antibody will be inspired by Harrison to donate as well. “All we can do is hope there will be people out there generous enough to do it,” she said, “and selflessly in the way he’s done.” Though he holds the record for the most donations (at 1173), Harrison has told the Blood Service that he hopes someone will break it. “I hope it’s a record that somebody breaks,” Harrison said, according to the Straits Times, “because it will mean they are dedicated to the cause.”

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