James Harrison is a typical 79 year-old man in most every way. A widower now, he likes to spend time with his daughter and grandson, take walks, and collect stamps. But just below the surface, literally, he is very unique. He first learned this at age 14, when he needed to undergo an emergency surgery to remove a lung—and then needed roughly three gallons of donated blood over the next three months of recovery. In gratitude he made a pledge to give blood himself as soon as he could. He says it was the second most important pledge he’s ever made, behind only his marriage vows.
So at 18 years-old, James started donating blood. It was then that doctors realized his blood contained very rare antibodies that could fight Rhesus disease, which caused women to miscarry or give birth to brain damaged babies. At the time, this disease was affecting thousands of babies in Harrison’s native Australia alone. So, he agreed to undergo further tests in addition to giving blood, and sure enough doctors were able to use James’ plasma to develop a life-saving Anti-D vaccine.
Since then, Harrison has donated plasma on average once every three weeks—possible because one can give plasma more often than blood. That’s more than 1,100 donations over the past 61 years, and counting. And what does that mean in lives saved? Doctors estimate that Harrison’s generosity has saved over two million babies—including, ironically, his own grandson Scott, when his daughter Tracey ended up needing the vaccine herself.
James loves to travel around Australia in his camper, but always knows where the nearest donation center is so that his giving routine isn’t affected. Although he holds the world record for donations, Australian law says he’ll need to stop giving at age 81. Harrison is disappointed that he’ll fall short of his goal of 2,000 donations but is hoping others will step up when he is no longer allowed to.
In 1999 Australia awarded him the Medal of the Order of Australia for his incredibly consistent generosity, but for Harrison the knowledge that he’s saving lives is all he needs. “I’m in it for the babies.”
So, the next time you hear about a quarterback or a pitcher with a “golden arm,” remember the man who has truly earned that nickname!
James Harrison is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.