James Harrison has saved more than 2 million newborn Australian babies with nothing but his arms. His amazing gift comes from the rare antibodies he has coursing through his veins.
The antibodies flowing through Harrison have the power to protect newborns from Rhesus disease — a potentially fatal condition — which can arise when a mother’s blood type is Rh-negative and the infant’s blood type is Rh-positive. The incompatibility leads the mother’s immune system to react defensively, attacking the baby’s blood during birth.
And this is where Harrison’s veins come in to the equation.
Harrison’s rare tonic of blood plasma was used to develop a vaccine, now commercially sold as Rho(D) immune globulin. However, the vaccine is only effective when prepared with donor blood. This is why, even at the age of 76, Harrison continues to donate blood every 7 to 10 days.
The story of Harrison’s life saving blood began when his own life was in peril. When he was 14, he developed severe bronchitis and underwent invasive chest surgery, removing a damaged lung. This procedure required a transfusion of 13 liters of blood – more than twice the amount in an average person’s body. He remained in the hospital for three months.
The donated blood saved his life and inspired him to become a donor as soon as he was eligible.
I said to my father that I would give blood myself as soon as possible and I stayed true to my word,” he told told the Sunshine Coast Daily, “and when I was 18, I donated blood for the first time and have been doing it ever since.
His first donation at the Australian Red Cross Blood Service was in 1955, but it took another 12 years of donations until the Blood Service discovered that Harrison’s lifesaving transfusion had an unusual side effect.
The Antibody Factory
In 1967 the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, in partnership with the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory, launched the Rh Antibody Project. The project’s goal was to prevent Rhesus disease in newborns by immunizing at-risk Rh-negative mothers with antibodies (called Anti-D) while pregnant with an Rh-positive baby. These antibodies prevent the mother’s immune system from attacking the unborn baby’s blood in cases where the blood was incompatible.
That same year when Harrison made a routine blood plasma donation, the doctors discovered that he had the rare Anti-D antibody. It’s estimated that a mere 200 people in Australia have it, yet over 1.7 million Australian women need it.
But Harrison’s case was even more unusual.
Like the at-risk mothers, his blood type was Rh-negative. His body could not have produced the antibody naturally. This meant that the transfusion he received when he was 14 must have mistakenly contained Rh-positive blood with Anti-D.
That mistake could have led to a number of adverse effects – from mild fevers to a fatal allergic reaction – yet Harrison was lucky. His body somehow adapted, and his blood remained healthy.
When the Blood Service discovered this, Harrison became the first volunteer donor for the Rh Antibody Project.
Being part of the program meant that he had to donate plasma every 7 to 10 days, go through several blood tests, as well as receive boosters in his blood so that his body could produce more Anti-D. He still continues to donate and receive boosters to this day.
Think of it this way: his body was and still is used as a factory to regularly produce Anti-D for the mothers and newborns who need it. His plasma has been used in every batch of Anti-D produced since he started.
Although there were times when there were almost 200 donors in the program, Harrison was the program’s first and most prolific donor. As a volunteer he received no compensation, but through the program his life was insured for $1 million — a much needed safety net for Harrison’s family in case his body reacted badly to the tests and boosters.
“They insured me for a million dollars so I knew my wife Barbara would be taken care of,” he told The Daily Mail. “I wasn’t scared. I was glad to help. I had to sign every form going and basically sign my life away.”
His commitment was put to the test in 2011, when, instead of taking less invasive medication to treat his overactive thyroid, he opted for surgery to have the thyroid removed since taking the medication would have made his blood dangerous for recipients and ended his ability to donate.
Nine months after the procedure, he was back in the Blood Service making donations.
2.2 Million Babies Saved
Before the Rh Antibody Project, there were thousands of newborn deaths in Australia each year attributed to Rhesus disease. Now, the disease is almost eradicated because Rh-negative mothers are routinely immunized during their pregnancy and after giving birth. Commonwealth Serum Laboratories estimated that as of 2010, 2.2 million babies have been saved by Harrison and the Anti-D donors.
But this doesn’t mean that the threat of Rhesus disease is a thing of the past. The Australian Red Cross Blood Service desperately needs at least 60 more donors for the Antibody Project.
According to Robyn Barlow, the program’s manager in New South Wales, the program has only about 100 donors across Australia, and their average age is 60. Many of these donors are retiring soon, either for health reasons or because of their age.
So, with Harrison himself roughly 50 donations away from retiring, who is going to take his place?
This is why, apart from donating blood, he also acts as a spokesperson for the Blood Service, participating in public awareness events such as Blood Donor Day. Also, in public appearances and interviews such as this one with the Sunshine Coast Daily, he is often very vocal about encouraging people to donate blood:
“More and more blood is needed every day, so if every current donor brought along one friend we wouldn’t have the sort of shortage we have at the moment,” he said.
A Call to Break the Record
As of July 2013, James Harrison has donated blood 1,043 times. According to the Blood Service, he currently holds Australia’s record for most blood and blood plasma donated.
In 2003 he also held the Guinness World Record for donating 1,077 units of blood on his 808th blood donation visit in May of that year. He encourages other people to surpass his numbers:
“I hope it’s a record that somebody breaks,” he said, “because it will mean they are dedicated to the cause.”
I’m no hero,” he said. “The people on the front line, the police, the emergency services, they’re the heroes because they’re out there doing it. I just catch the train down to Sydney from the Central Coast as often as I can, read a good book, donate and come back.
If it were really that simple though, everyone would be doing it.