When Superman first debuted in 1938, people were awed and dazzled — and how could you not be? He always saved the day with superhuman strength and invulnerability, his red cape fluttering in the breeze as he set the bar for flashy heroism.
Australia’s James Harrison didn’t wear a cape or fight any villains. He wasn’t flashy or invulnerable; in fact, he was deathly afraid of needles. Yet over the course of his life, he played hero in a super way: the ordinary man changed the lives of hundreds of people on a weekly basis thanks to a rare trait…
Eighty-one-year-old James Harrison of Australia may seem like an ordinary guy at first glance. But get to know him — listen to his story — and you’ll soon learn he has a history that could’ve been ripped from the pages of your favorite comic book.
James, you see, has been given the nickname “The Golden Arm.” While this may sound like a nonsensical moniker, the story behind his nickname is absolutely inspirational.
The story starts in the early 1950s when James was only 14 years old. He fell ill and needed emergency lung surgery. After hours-long operations, 2.5 gallons of blood transfusions, and endless medications, James couldn’t believe it: he survived.
Although he was scared of needles, James knew from that moment on he wanted to be an organ and blood donor. When he became of legal age, he immediately began working on his goal and searched for the nearest location to donate blood.
He found a local Red Cross Center in Sydney, where he was asked if he wanted to donate whole blood, plasma, or just platelets. He was told he could not donate whole blood as often as he wanted, but he could at least donate plasma every few weeks.
After about a month, he was called in by the center. He was nervous, but he went right in. The doctor who met with him began by asking: “Sir, have you heard of Rhesus disease?”
James didn’t have Rhesus disease. In fact, it’s found only in pregnant mothers and fetuses, and it causes the baby to suffer from anemia, jaundice, brain damage, or even death.
Rhesus disease occurs when a mother’s blood and the baby’s blood are incompatible due to the Rh level in the father’s blood (the factor that makes your blood type + or -). If an Rh- mother’s blood crosses with her Rh+ baby’s blood, it can attack the child’s red blood cells.
“In Australia, up until the 1960s, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year,” explained Jemma Falkenmire, a spokesperson of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. “Women were having numerous miscarriages and babies were being born with brain damage.” So what did this have to do with James?
Luckily, certain people have the antibodies for this disease swimming in their bloodstream — and James is one of them! As soon as he found out, he made it his life’s mission to donate plasma almost every week, though always looking away because of a strong fear for the syringe.
“The Red Cross and Australia can never thank a man like James enough,” said Ms. Falkenmire in an interview. “It’s unlikely we will ever have another blood donor willing to make this commitment.”
Wall Street Journal
But there was someone even closer to home who saw James for the hero he is. His own daughter, Tracey Mellowship, fell within the 17% of Australians suffering from Rhesus disease during her pregnancy.
She was given a transfusion of her own father’s blood and brought to the world a beautiful baby girl. James couldn’t be happier that he could save his own granddaughter (front) with his “golden arms.”
In 2018, James’ story was in the news again, although this time it was for a sad reason. He had reached the age of 81, the limit for donating blood in Australia. On May 11, he made his very last donation: number 1,173. He wished he could keep donating, but couldn’t believe his ears when he was told how many lives he’d saved.
Subel Bhandari / Newscom
James’ blood was used to cure Rhesus disease so often that he had saved over 2.4 million unborn babies, winning him the Medal Of The Order Of Australia, as well as the Guinness World Record for most blood donated in a lifetime.
“Every ampoule of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it. I cry just thinking about it,” Robyn Barlow, the program coordinator who recruited Mr. Harrison and who celebrated his last donation with him, said.
So what now? Does the end of James’ era mean the Rhesus babies are doomed? Don’t worry: although the antibody gene is rare, he wasn’t the only one with the miracle cure in his veins. There are currently 160-200 known Australians who are donating the special plasma to save future babies.
Donating blood is an easy thing to do. Many schools and businesses organize blood drives where you can donate blood without the commute. There are even buses that travel through cities to collect from anyone who is ready to donate.
“Saving two million is hard to get your head around, but if they claim that’s what it is, I’m glad to have done it,” James said with a smile. “I guess you can blame me for the increase in population.”