There will always be those people who like to help others. Whether it’s a talent of theirs, an idea they brought to fruition, or something passive, they spend their lives making the world a better place.
One Australian man spent his life giving to help others. But it wasn’t money or even time that he sacrificed, but an actual piece of himself that was used to save millions of lives.
If you were to look at him, you probably wouldn’t think there was anything special about James. On the surface, he just seems like a typical guy in his early 80s. He loves his daughter and grandchildren and spends his days collecting stamps and going for walks near his home on Australia’s central coast.
But beneath the surface, James is anything but ordinary. There is something special about his blood that makes him different from just about everyone else on the planet. And because of that difference, he’s been a powerful force for good.
It all started back when he was just a very sick child. “In 1951, I had a chest operation where they removed a lung,” said James, who was 14 at the time of his surgery. “When I came out of the operation, or a couple days after, my father was explaining what had happened.”
“He said [I received 13 liters] of blood and my life had been saved by unknown people,” he continued. “He was a donor himself, so I said when I’m old enough, I’ll become a blood donor.” James started donating blood as soon as he turned 18 in 1954 and shortly after he did, he discovered something amazing.
After just a few donations, doctors called James to come in and speak with them with very important, very good news. They told him that in his blood was the solution to a deadly problem that affected a huge number of people.
“In Australia, up until about 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year, doctors didn’t know why, and it was awful,” explained Jemma Falkenmire of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. “Women were having numerous miscarriages and babies were being born with brain damage.”
It turned out to be a result of rhesus disease, a condition where a pregnant woman with rhesus-negative blood (RhD negative) has a baby in her womb with rhesus-positive blood (RhD positive) inherited from its father. If the mother has been sensitized to RhD-positive blood, usually during a previous pregnancy, she may produce antibodies that attack and destroy the baby’s blood cells.
James Harrison’s blood contained a rare antibody that could fight against rhesus disease, likely as a result of the massive donation of blood he’d received when he was a child. Simply put, he had within his veins the key to saving countless lives.
“Australia was one of the first countries to discover a blood donor with this antibody, so it was quite revolutionary at the time,” said Falkenmire. When doctors told him how he could help, James jumped at the opportunity.
He began donating his plasma regularly and in the 1960s, worked with doctors to develop a medication based on his blood called Anti-D, which stopped RhD negative women from developing the antibodies that would harm their babies during pregnancy.
From the time he was informed of the special quality of his blood, James kept up a busy schedule of donating plasma an average of one time every three weeks, which was the only way Anti-D could be produced in any considerable quantity. “Every batch of Anti-D that has ever been made in Australia has come from James’ blood,” said Falkenmire back in 2015.
Lifetime of Giving
“And more than 17% of women in Australia are at risk, so James has helped save a lot of lives,” she added. In total, James donated his blood or plasma 1,173 times starting at the age of 18. He would still be donating today but Australian policy prohibits blood donations from those past the age of 81.
Through those many donations and the development of Anti-D, it’s estimated that James Harrison has saved over 2.4 million unborn babies from rhesus disease, including someone very dear to him.
James Harrison’s own daughter had a pregnancy with a risk of rhesus and was given the Anti-D vaccine. “That resulted in my second grandson being born healthy,” he said. “And that makes you feel good yourself that you saved a life there, and you saved many more and that’s great.”
For all that he’s done, James is considered a national hero in Australia. He’s won a number of awards for his generosity, including the Medal of the Order of Australia. “It becomes quite humbling when they say, ‘oh you’ve done this or you’ve done that or you’re a hero,’“ he 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.” Funnily enough, he’s not even all that great of a donor when it comes to actually sticking the needle in and extracting the blood.
I Hate Needles
For all of the times he’s donated blood, James absolutely hates needles. “Never once have I watched the needle go in my arm,” he said. “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.”
Passing the Torch
But now that James is past the age where he can give blood, scientists are going to need new donors with the same rare antibodies that are found in his body if they are going to continue to produce Anti-D.
Others Step In
Thankfully, there are others stepping up to the plate to give in James’ wake. In Australia, a country with a population of about 24 million, approximately 200 donors have been found in the past few years that have the rare antibody necessary in their blood.
Giving Feels Good
If you would like to give blood and help save lives, you can do so through donations to the Red Cross, which operates in 190 countries around the world. You can find out how at redcross.org. If giving blood is not your thing, there are countless other ways you can help your community and they’re all worth it, no matter how small.