Blood donor credited with saving 2 million babies

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015

UMINA BEACH, Australia (WPVI) -- Everyone who donates blood is a lifesaver.

But James Harrison of Australia is a special donor, one who has single-handedly saved millions of lives.

"I got nicknamed the man with the golden arm," Harrison quips.

The reason is what's flowing in his veins.

He has donated blood plasma an average of once every three weeks for 60 years.

It all began when had had surgery at age 14.

"In 1951, I had a chest operation which they removed a lung. And they said I had 13 units of blood and my life had been saved by unknown people," says Harrison.

He vowed that when he became 18, he's donate blood, to give back on behalf of those who saved him.

Shortly after he donated, doctors called him with an idea, saying his blood could be the answer to a baffling problem.

"In Australia, up until about 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year, doctors didn't know why, and it was awful," says Jemma Falkenmire, Australian Red Cross Blood Service.

"Women were having numerous miscarriages, and babies were being born with brain damage, and researchers discovered NTD and James was discovered to have this antibody in his blood...which was amazing."

The women had Rhesus disease, in which a pregnant woman's blood attacks her unborn baby's blood cells.

In the worst case, it can lead to brain damage, or death, for the babies.

"Australia was one of the first countries to discover a blood donor with this antibody, so it was quite revolutionary at the time. James is effectively helped babies in Australia but he's helped babies all around the world," says Falkenmire.

James worked with doctors to develop a treatment using the antibodies in his blood.

"Today I'll be making my 1,101 donation," says James on his way to the donor center.

There, his plasma is separated from the red blood cells.

He gets those back while the plasma heads off to become part of the treatment.

"It's really very easy for him to do, and he certainly doesn't see it as anything big," says Falkenmire.

"That's the other rare thing about James -- he thinks his donations are the same as anybody else's. He doesn't think he's remarkable," she notes.

In his home country, James is a national hero, who has been given the Order of Australia medal.

But he doesn't see himself as special.

"It's something I can do. It's one of my talents, probably my only talent, is that I can be a blood donor," he says with a smile.

But it is a big deal.

James and his treatment are credited with saving more than 2 million babies, according to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service.

"Every batch of NTD that has ever been made in Australia has come from James' blood. And more than 17% of women in Australia are at risk, so James has helped save a lot of lives," says Falkenmire.

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