It all started when James Harrison needed surgery as a 14-year-old boy. One of his lungs was removed and a large amount of donated blood was needed to pull him through. But pull through he did, and when he had learned of all that had been done to save him, the anonymous donors who gave of their own selves to help him survive, he made a pledge to do the same… to pay it forward… just as soon as he was old enough to do so.
The earliest age at which you can donate blood in Australia is 18, so he waited patiently for a few years to begin his mission. When the time came he began diligently donating as he’d promised he would, in spite of a very real fear of needles that he has never gotten over.
Mysterious Fetal Death Epidemic
A number of years later, something awful and scary had begun happening throughout Australia. Up until 1967, babies had been dying at an astonishing rate and no one seemed to know why. Miscarriages and live births with severe brain damage were numbering in the thousands each year. Finally, it was determined that these babies were suffering from a condition known as hemolytic disease of the newborn, or HDN. It occurs when a woman with an Rh-negative blood type is pregnant with a fetus with Rh-positive blood. In short, the mother’s body rejects the fetus’s red blood cells, causing severe damage or death to the fetus. (1)
Once doctors were able to determine what the issue was, they posited that HDN could be prevented by treating the pregnant woman with a plasma mixture containing a rare antibody. The hunt was on for a donor with the right antibody, and it wouldn’t be long before blood bank databases returned a favorable answer: Mr. James Harrison’s plasma had the stuff they needed.
Donated Blood Saves Lives
He was immediately contacted by program administrators and asked to participate in a pilot program where the antibody theory would be tested. He was more than happy to “lend an arm” as it were, with a plasma donation. The program was hugely successful, and he began donating his precious plasma instead of whole blood.
Mr. Harrison became known as The Man With The Golden Arm, and the rest is history.
Already past the age limit for blood donation, he made his last contribution in May of 2018 at age 81. Though still very much strong and vital, experts decided it was time that he kept all his precious resources for himself.
It’s estimated that Mr. Harrison’s generosity has saved the lives of millions of babies… and maintained the joy of new life in the hearts of millions of parents. If you ever wonder if you can make a difference in this world, think of James Harrison and know without a doubt that you can.