In his home country, James Harrison is known as the “man with the golden arm” for a very good reason: More than 2.4 million Australians are alive today because of the blood donations he has been making for more than 60 years.
As a teenager, Harrison, now 81, required surgery and was the beneficiary of blood donations that helped him survive the procedure. He pledged to pay back his good fortune by reciprocating in kind. When doctors discovered that his blood contained a rare antibody that was a crucial ingredient to a medication given to pregnant women to prevent their babies from contracting a potentially fatal disease, his kindness became a calling.
That calling came to a close last Friday, when Harrison settled into a donation chair at the Town Hall Center in Sydney and gave blood for the final time, under a set of number-shaped balloons that counted his total tally of donations over his lifetime: 1,773. Harrison, already a folk hero Down Under for his efforts, wishes the count could go higher, but his doctors have recommended that he put his own health first (finally).
“The end of an era,” was how Harrison described his final donation to the New York Times. “It was sad because I felt like I could keep going.”
The Australian Red Cross says that about 17 percent of all women in the country required the anti-D injections that were made thanks to Harrison’s blood donations (and the donations of about 150 others who possess the same blood marking) in order to keep their babies healthy.
The organization estimates that over the years, Harrison’s donations have helped save 2.4 million babies. According to the Australia Bureau of Statistics, the current population of the country is 24.7 million.
“The Red Cross and Australia can never thank a man like James enough,” Jemma Falkenmire, a spokeswoman for the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, said in a statement. “It’s unlikely we will ever have another blood donor willing to make this commitment.”
Harrison, a retired railway executive who lives in New South Wales, received the Medal of the Order of Australia for his blood donations, and scientists have dubbed a project to produce a synthetic form of his helpful antibody “James in a Jar.” For his part, he played down the dynamic effects of his efforts when he spoke to the Times.
“Saving one baby is good,” he said. “Saving 2 million is hard to get your head around, but if they claim that’s what it is, I’m glad to have done it.”