An 81-year-old grandfather who made it his life’s mission as a teenager to help others by giving blood has now donated for the last time, bringing an end to a remarkable journey that has saved the lives of millions of women in his native Austrailia.
Over the course of six decades, James Harrison has donated more than 1,100 times, earning himself the nickname “the man with the golden arm,” according to the Australian Red Cross. While donating blood is always a generous and significant gift from donors, what makes Harrison’s donations so special is that his blood comes with a unique antibody used to protect unborn babies from a deadly disease.
The condition, called Rhesus D Haemolytic Disease, causes the blood of pregnant women to attack a baby’s blood cells, which can cause brain damage, heart failure or death in newborns, according to Stanford Children’s Health. A lifesaving medication, called Anti-D, was developed for mothers at-risk for the disease using plasma from donors like Harrison.
“Every ampule of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it,” Robyn Harlow, who recruited Harrison, told the Sydney Morning Herald. “It’s an enormous thing… He has saved millions of babies. I cry just thinking about it.”
The Australian Red Cross says Harrison has saved the unborn babies of more than two million Australian women over the course of his life.
According to the Red Cross, Harrison was inspired to donate when he needed 13 units of blood when he underwent major chest surgery when he was just 14 years old. Realizing how the blood of strangers saved his life, Harrison wanted to give back and jumped right into donating when he turned 18. A decade later, doctors discovered the uniqueness of Harrison’s blood and asked him if he was willing to donate his plasma.
“They asked me to be a guinea pig, and I’ve been donating ever since,” Harrison told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Yet, Harrison’s amazing run came to an end on May 11 when he gave his final donation, having reached the age limit of blood donors in Austrailia.
“It’s a sad day for me,” Harrison told the Morning Herald as he gave blood for the final time. “The end of a long run.”
Harrison retires with 1,162 donations stemming from his right arm, and 10 from his left arm. It’s a record Harrison hope he doesn’t keep for long.
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“I hope it’s a record that somebody breaks because it will mean they are dedicated to the cause,” Harrison told the Red Cross.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the organization praised Harrison — who received the Medal of the Order of Australia for his contributions in 1999—for his decades-long commitment to helping others.
“Australia owes a big thank you to James Harrison, Australia became the first country in the world to be self-sufficient in the supply of Anti-D, and cases of HDN are rare,” spokesperson Jemma Falkenmire said. “We encourage the partners and friends of all new mothers to think about donating blood, just one donation helps ensure someone has the chance to be a mother.”
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Yet, when speaking to the Morning Herald on his last donation day, Harrison hinted that if it weren’t up to the age limit, he would be ready to give blood for a long time to come.
“I’d keep on going,” he said, “if they’d let me.”