NOBODY is certain how 81-year-old James Harrison of New South Wales, Australia, got an extremely rare antibody in his blood, but for 60 years he has made donations that have saved an estimated 2.4 million lives.
Known as the man with the golden arm, Harrison made his final blood donation last week -- his 1,173rd donation. Rules at the Australia Red Cross Blood Service usually stop accepting blood from donors when they reach the age of 71. However, medical professionals allowed Harrison to keep going for an extra decade because of the importance of his participation.
Doctors learned in the 1960s that hemolytic disease of the newborn, or HDN, occurs when a woman with an Rh-negative blood type becomes pregnant with a baby who has Rh-positive blood, inherited from the father. In many cases the mother's body will reject the fetus' red blood cells because of the incompatible blood types.
In 1967, Harrison had been donating whole blood for several years. He did so because his own life had been saved in 1951 when he survived a difficult surgery thanks to blood supplies donated by others.
Researchers discovered the antibody they were looking for in Harrison's blood. They don't know if he was born with it or if he got it from those early transfusions. They just knew it could save lives.
"They asked me to be a guinea pig and I've been donating ever since," Harrison told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Researchers used Harrison's blood to create Anti-D injections that have been administered to about 17 percent of pregnant women in Australia. Medical professionals estimate his blood has saved 2.4 million babies from death or brain damage.
When asked by reporters if he was courageous or heroic, Harrison shook his head. He said being a blood donor might be his only talent.
Australian officials estimate that no more than 50 people in their country have the antibodies need to create the Anti-D injections. They'll be looking for someone to take up the years of faithful and selfless giving that Harrison began.
We believe that everyone who donates blood is doing something heroic.
The American Red Cross seems to have the same idea. Blood drive organizers are looking for donors in this area every month. They don't require any rare antibodies, just people with big hearts.