The man who saved 2 million babies
When James Harrison was 14, he was required to undergo a blood transfusion. Ever since, despite the transfusion saving his life, he’s hated needles. Yet every two weeks, without fail, James offers his right arm, clenches his fist as the tourniquet is applied, and waits for the sting.
The World's Most Prolific Blood Donor
At 74, James is the world’s most prolific blood donor. The Australian earned the Guinness World Record in 2003 and still he’s kept on giving. This year, James is on track to make his 1000th donation – and he has no plans to stop.
All blood donors are special people. Their blood is used for everything from treating cancer to preventing infection and replacing blood lost in road accidents. But James’s blood has a particular use: it helps women have babies. According to the biomedical company CSL, which turns the blood donations into hospital products, James’s donations of anti-D plasma have helped up to 2.2 million babies since 1967.
The product derived from James’s blood is called anti-D. It’s given to mothers with Rh (rhesus) negative blood types, who are carrying Rh positive babies (which commonly happens if the father has a Rh positive blood type).
haemolytic disease of the newborn
Usually it’s not a problem if a mother and her first child have different blood types. But often during late pregnancy or labour, some of the baby’s positive cells leak across the placenta into the mother’s bloodstream, causing her immune system to create antibodies that attack the positive cells. The next time she’s pregnant with a Rh positive baby, these antibodies attack the baby’s blood cells, resulting in serious complications such as anaemia, brain damage or even death. It was often the reason women had numerous miscarriages.
The condition, known as haemolytic disease of the newborn – or HDN – is prevented with anti-D. Injected into the mother just after the birth of her first child and consecutive children, or if there is a threat of miscarriage, the anti-D destroys errant positive cells from the baby’s blood before the mother’s immune system can produce antibodies. Next time she’s pregnant, her body will treat the baby as if it’s her first.
The vast majority of donors who donate anti-D have negative blood types and are stimulated to produce antibodies with injections. But, through a quirk of fate, James produces the antibodies himself. When he had the blood transfusion aged 14, he was mistakenly given positive blood. As a result, he naturally produces so many antibodies that if he were to receive positive blood again he could die. But it also means he’s an anti-D goldmine. So, every two weeks, James makes his way to the blood donation centre. He quite enjoys the trip and the day out, especially since his wife, Barbara, also a long-term anti-D donor, died three years ago.
James: The man with the golden arm
James Harrison clenches his fist and closes his eyes. He’s filled in his forms, been tested for anaemia, and said a cheery hello to the receptionists – they’ve seen each other so often they’re like old friends. James’ anti-D antibodies are taken from his plasma in a process known as apheresis. Blood is passed through a cell separator – a centrifuge that spins it until the plasma is separated from the rest of the blood. The plasma is taken for processing, while the rest of his blood is returned via another line straight back into James’s veins. That’s why he can donate so often – he doesn’t need time for his bone marrow to replace the red blood cells. Upstairs, small samples of the plasma are taken for testing. Although James has been donating blood for 56 years, every donation is tested for type and red cell antibodies, as well as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis B and C, human T-cell lymphotropic virus and syphilis.
As James sits having a sandwich and a cup of tea, the bag containing his plasma is checked and sent to the lab for freezing at -20°C. It’s then transported to Melbourne to be processed into anti-D vaccine and shipped all over the country.
James became a blood donor two days after he turned 18. All his life he’s been that sort of a person: he’s built a Scout hall; volunteered for Meals on Wheels. His father had donated before him, and when he saw the ad for a blood donation drive, he jumped at the chance. So he was already an old hand when, in 1966, he was called into the office and told about a new therapy that was preventing Rh negative mothers from having anaemic babies or miscarrying.
Giving blood and Preventing HDN
The fact that the mothers’ antibodies could be causing HDN was first described in 1940, and affected babies were given blood transfusions through the umbilical cord at birth in an attempt to prevent the side effects. But it wasn’t until the ’60s that medical teams in the UK and US discovered they might be able to prevent a mother’s manufacture of the antibodies by injecting her with anti-D. In 1966, results were presented to the XIth Congress of the International Society of Blood Transfusion in Sydney: immunisation with anti-D could prevent HDN.
“The findings revolutionised the treatment of HDN,” says Dr Tony Keller, donor and product safety specialist with the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. “It has saved countless babies who are alive now or would either be severely disabled or dead.”
James was taken to the city where he had chest X-rays, and filled out forms – they’d even taken out an insurance policy for him. At first there were plenty of donors – all the Rh negative women who had developed antibodies to their own babies’ blood. But over time, as more women were inoculated with anti-D, donor numbers dwindled.
In 2003 medical guidelines in Australia were changed to recommend that women should receive injections at 28 and 34 weeks’ pregnant, as well as just after the birth. That meant the amount of anti-D needed trebled. Gradually, James was encouraged to come in more regularly. His six-weekly visits to the blood donation centre became four-weekly, then fortnightly. For the past 30 years, he’s donated on average an incredible 33 times a year.
Thank you james!!!
Everywhere he goes, he meets women whose babies have likely been helped by one of his donations. He loves country music, pug dogs, and caravanning. For several months of the year he combines two of his passions and travels around the country, following the music. At one country music festival where his story was told, four women thanked him for their healthy children. “One lady said, ‘I have eight children so I had your injection seven times.’ I said, ‘We’re practically related’.”
Of the hundreds of thank yous he’s received, none was more heartfelt than that of his own daughter, Tracey. With Rh negative blood and a Rh positive husband, she received the shot after her first son, Jarrod, was born in 1992. Her second son, Scott, may never have been born without it.
“Yes, that did inspire me,” says James, “but really my 1000 donations are no more important than somebody’s first donation. It costs me nothing – only time. And I have plenty of time.”