For every regular blood donation, three lives could be saved; an ordinary plasma donation could save 18.
But James Harrison is extraordinary. His blood has helped save the lives of 2.4 million babies.
The 81-year-old’s plasma contains a potent antibody used to create a remarkable treatment known as Anti-D that protects unborn babies from the potentially deadly Rhesus D Haemolytic Disease (HDN).
On Friday, after more than 60 years and 1173 donations, Mr Harrison made his final benefaction.
“It’s a sad day for me. The end of a long run,” Mr Harrison says as his blood flows from the crook of his right arm to the plasmapheresis machine at the Town Hall Donor Centre.
When a pregnant woman with an Rh negative blood type is carrying a baby with Rh positive blood, her body registers the baby’s red blood cells as a foreign threat (an invading virus of bacteria) and produces antibodies to destroy the invader.
The effects can be devastating. The disease causes multiple miscarriages, still births, and brain damage or fatal anaemia in newborns.
HDN killed thousands of Australian babies every year before scientists made their breakthrough Anti-D discovery in the 1960s.
The breakthrough came when Australian scientists realised they could head off HDN by injecting Rh- mothers with low levels of donated RhD immunoglobulin. The antibodies mop up any Rh+ blood cells without harming the baby.
Mr Harrison naturally produces the rare combination of RhD-negative blood and Rh+ antibodies, making him the ideal donor.
“Every ampule of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it,” said Robyn Barlow the Rh program coordinator who recruited James, the program’s first donor.
“Since the very first mother received her dose at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1967.
“It’s an enormous thing … He has saved millions of babies. I cry just thinking about it,” she said.
Jemma Falkenmire at the Australian Red Cross Blood Donor Service said “very few people have the these antibodies in such strong concentrations.
“His body produces a lot of them and when he donates his body produces more,” Ms Falkenmire said.
Scientists suspect this has something to do with the 13 units of blood transfusions he received after undergoing major chest surgery when he was 14 years old.
Mr Harrison did not hesitate when he was asked to join the Anti-D program. It was his way of giving back after receiving his own life-saving transfusion.
“They asked me to be a guinea pig, and I’ve been donating ever since,” Mr Harrison said.
HDN still has the potential to affect one in six newborns in Australia. Roughly 17 per cent of pregnant women receive Anti-D, including Mr Harrison’s own daughter.
The Red Cross Blood service pulled Australian birth data since 1964, factored in that 17 per cent of women received anti-d injections and calculated the risk of HDN deaths.
Almost every week, the 81-year-old dubbed “the man with the golden arm” has donated 500-800ml of blood plasma. He retires with 1162 donations from his right arm and 10 from his left.
The Blood service calculated Mr Harrison has helped prevent 2.4 million deaths by analysing national birth data since 1964 and the proportion of the population that received Anti-D injections and the HDN mortality risk.
‘He really is remarkable’
“I’d keep on going if they’d let me,” Mr Harrison said.
But he has already surpassed the donor age limit and the Blood Service made decision to protect his health.
Mr Harrison draws out the process as he reclines in a chair, squeezing a firm sponge absent-mindedly and enjoying the gaggle of half a dozen Anti-D babies cooing in their mothers arms; families who have come to thank him on his last day.
Beth Ismay had four Anti-D injections during her second pregnancy with daughter Layla.
“He really is remarkable,” Ms Ismay says, “keeping our babies safe.”
Ms Barlow agrees. “We’ll never see his kind again … that he has been well and fit and his veins strong enough to continue to donate for so long is very, very rare,” she said.
Australia’s Anti-D program is wholly dependent on just 160 donors. Recruiting new donors is a laborious task.
Attempts to create a synthetic version has so far failed. The Blood Service recently started a three year research project to harvest Mr Harrison’s DNA and create a library of his monoclonals – the cocktail of antibodies and white blood cells that herald a promising new phase in the Anti-D program.
Mr Harrison and the Blood Service urged the partners of expectant mothers to donate blood to aid the one in five pregnant women who need some type of life-saving blood service.
“It really is the gift of life. It’s so important,” he said.
Mr Harrison was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1999.