“The blood you donate gives someone another chance at life. One day that someone may be a close relative, a friend, a loved one — or even you.”
We may have heard about extraordinary feats and unique achievements, like a man pulling a truck or a boy climbing a multi-storey building without any support. However, there are also many exceptional men and women who have more distinctive records to their names and that too not just of an individual merit. Here we are to discuss one such person, James Christopher Harrison. Popularly dubbed as ‘the Man with the golden blood’ and ‘the Man with the golden arm’, James Harrison is a famous blood plasma donor from Australia. Distinguished for his blood donations, Harrison has been credited with over a thousand donations throughout his lifetime. In fact, it is Harrison’s blood whose unusual plasma composition has been used to make a cure for Rhesus disease. His contribution in the form of blood donations is said to have saved over two million unborn infants from the condition.
The incident that stimulated a young Harrison
Harrison was born on 27 December 1936. At the age of 14, he had to undergo a major chest surgery, requiring a good many liters of blood. After surgery, Harrison remained in the hospital for next three months. This early realization of the importance of blood that had saved his life left a deep impression upon the mind of a growing Harrison, and he pledged to start donating blood as soon as he turned the required age of 18.
Blood plasma donations
At the time when Harrison came to the age of blood donation, Austrailia was facing a dire situation. Thousands of newborns were dying each year of Rhesus disease. Others suffered permanent brain damage because of the condition.
This disease creates an incompatibility between the mother’s blood and her unborn baby’s blood. It stems from one having Rh-positive blood and the other Rh-negative.
Keeping his promise to himself, Harrison began giving blood in 1954. Much to his surprise, just after a few blood donations, he was found to have in his blood contained a rare life-saving antibody.
The discovery that Harrison’s blood contained unusually strong and persistent antibodies against the ‘D Rh’ group antigen led to the development of immune globulin based products to put a stop to hemolytic disease of the newborn (HDN), of which Rhesus is the most common form. These products, which contain a significant level of anti-D antibodies are given to Rh(D) negative mothers of unknown or Rh(D) positive children during and after pregnancy to avoid the formation of antibodies to the blood of a Rh-positive infant.
Through the donations of his plasma, Harrison has helped prevent thousands of children from dying of the disease. This rareness of his blood was considered so important that his life was insured for one million dollars after this discovery and the following research, based on his donations, created the commercial Anti-D immune globulin commonly known as ‘RhoGAM’. Harrison’s blood plasma derivatives have since been given as a treatment to one in ten pregnant women whose blood could potentially become unsuited with that of their babies.
Harrison’s blood donations were estimated to have saved more than two million newborns, with pregnant mothers, including his daughter Tracey, who too was treated with his antibodies.
A phenomenal record
One could donate blood plasma, in contrast to blood, as often as once every two weeks. Harrison was able to reach his 1000th donation in 2011. On an average, Harrison has been donating every three weeks during his five decades of the philanthropic journey. On reaching this milestone of blood donations, Harrison remarked that his record should be one of those records that need to be frequently broken.
Advocacy against commercialization
In 2007, Harrison was skeptical of policies to open up Australia’s plasma donation to foreign corporations. To him, opening up the trade will discourage volunteers from donations. This opening of business stemmed from a review of the country’s free-trade agreement with the US.
For his regular donations and cooperation in the checking of Rhesus, Harrison was decorated with the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 1999. He was nominated for Australian of the Year, though he did not win. In 2011, he got nominated in the New South Wales Local Hero division of the Australian of the Year awards. Harrison has been a major example for raising awareness to promote blood donation throughout the world. The internal forums have praised his exceptional feat. Globally, he has become a poster-boy of blood donation.