STORIES
Health

James Harrison

by Gabriela Sanchez - High School - from San Diego, California, United States

James Harrison, the “Man with the Golden Arm”

Only a handful of people in the world can say that they have saved someone’s life, ranging from rescuing a child from a burning building to being able to stop someone from taking their own life. No matter the scenario, every life is precious; anyone who has saved a life deserves to be called a hero for such an extraordinary feat. Even more amazing than saving one life, however, is saving 2.4 million lives ("Australian man 'with the golden arm' retires from donating blood aged 81 after saving 2.4m babies”). Australian blood donor and hero James Harrison was able to do this because of his unique blood that contains the rare antibody to Rhesus disease. Harrison, also known as “the man with the golden arm” ("Australian man"), donated blood from age eighteen until he turned eighty-one. Although Harrison is no longer a donor, his awe-inspiring story should not be forgotten. Not just with his blood donations, but also through his selflessness and dedication to save lives, James Harrison protected countless babies from a potentially fatal disease; therefore, Harrison’s story is a model for us to follow so that we, too, can be a beneficiary to others in our own ways.

Harrison was born in Unima, New South Wales, in 1936. At age fourteen, he was in need of thirteen liters of blood for a chest operation that he was to undergo. He was immensely appreciative of the donation that he received after his successful surgery, and in gratitude decided to become a donor at eighteen (“James Harrison”). It was not until ten years after he began to give blood regularly that researchers discovered Harrison’s blood to be different: it contained anti-D immunoglobulin (Stevens), an antibody to a condition known as Rhesus disease that developed in pregnant mothers and their babies (“James Harrison”). Although not completely certain, the researchers believed that the development of the immunoglobulin might have had something to do with the blood transfusion that he had received during his surgery almost fifteen years ago ("He's the 'Man with the Golden Arm'”). All that mattered was that Harrison had the cure to Rhesus quite literally running through his veins. They asked him to join the Anti-D program, which marked the beginning of the program and the start of Harrison’s life-saving blood being put to use.

Harrison’s numerous donations protected many babies from Rhesus disease, or hemolytic disease of the newborn (HDN). Although it is not an extremely common disease, Rhesus can appear in many mothers and fetuses. It is explained that HDN “occurs when a woman has rhesus-negative blood while her fetus is rhesus-postive, a trait inherited from its father. In such pregnancies, a mother . . . may develop antibodies that destroy the fetus' blood cells” ("He's the 'Man with the Golden Arm'").  Like with many other diseases, the possibly life-threatening side effects require a cure to be able to battle them. Rhesus doesn’t present any dangers to the mother, but there are various problems that the disease can cause in the unborn baby, including jaundice, brain damage, anemia, and heart problems (Hank Green 1:35). In more severe cases, these can even lead to the baby’s death. Harrison’s blood is then needed to prevent the side effects. Hank Green said in his video that “Harrison’s blood can stop the many problems and complications that come with the disease because it contains high levels of the antibody anti-D immunoglobulin” (“How Can One Person’s Blood Save 2 Million Babies?” 1:58). Because of the antibodies that it contains, his blood was used to produce Anti-D, which is the cure to Rhesus and its wide range of side effects. This was the reason for the value of Harrison’s donations. In an article about Harrison, it was written that “more than three million doses of Anti-D . . . have been issued to mothers since 1967” (Stevens). That was no trivial amount of babies that Harrison was able to help throughout almost six decades; however, those who were protected from Rhesus by Harrison’s donations shouldn’t be thought of as simply babies (albeit babies are, of course, important). They should be thought about as unique individuals, as future generations of humans who could go on to leave their own mark on the world. The lives of so many were changed with Harrison’s life-saving donations.

Harrison’s selflessness was another factor to his continuity as a donor. Something that might seem absurd to consider is that a frequent blood donor such as Harrison would have a fear of needles; however, Harrison does in fact have trypanophobia. Harrison said, “I look at the nurses, the ceiling, the spots on the wall, anything but the needle” ("Australian man"). It might not seem to be of much importance, but an encounter with any sort of fear would make most people think twice about doing something. How many of us would not dare go into a pitch black room, fearing the monsters that lurk in the darkness? How many of us cannot find beauty in the twinkling lights of a city from the top of a skyscraper, focusing only on the growing vertigo caused by the distance between our feet and the ground? Not just once or twice, but for sixty years, Harrison selflessly put aside his fears for others. After his many decades of donations and ignoring the sharp, metallic needle going into his arm, Harrison made his final donation in Sydney. Various grateful mothers were there to witness the event and to thank Harrison for his myriad of donations. “Blame me for the increase in population" he said, humbly laughing off the praise that he received (Stevens). Rather than proudly acknowledging the hundreds of donations that he made, Harrison did not let himself get caught up in his ego. He remained focused on the fact that he gave his blood for so many years to benefit others and not for the recognition that he would receive. If he had become a donor with public recognition as his main priority, he might have not have continued for such a long time, which is why his selflessness was such a significant factor to his donating. This characteristic of Harrison’s as a whole was key to having him be able to focus on his most important goal: preventing HDN in as many children as he could.

Harrison was committed and dedicated to what he was doing, knowing that the outcome was more than worth it. When he turned eighty-one, he didn’t want to have to stop donating. He was well aware that his blood was precious and could save so many more lives, but medical officials from the Red Cross advised him that it was best that he stop. On the day of his final donation, Harrison commented, “It's a sad day for me. The end of a long run. . . I'd keep on going if they'd let me” ("Australian man”). To be a young blood donor is one thing, but continually donating at eighty-one is not something that many would consider. Harrison was truly devoted to what he had been doing from the moment he turned eighteen and knew that so many people would be benefited by it--but just how many? The final number was calculated: Harrison made 1,173 donations during his years as an active blood donor ("Australian man”). This averages out to about one donation every three weeks, which might not seem like a lot at first but adds up after sixty years. Harrison’s commitment is depicted through the hundreds upon hundreds of times that he went to donate. Harrison gave blood so many times that he “set a world's record for most blood donated by a single individual. As of early 2012 he had donated blood more than 1,000 times” (“James Harrison”). Not only did he set a world record, but he set it about six years before he stopped donating blood, making it safe to say that Harrison was one of the most committed blood donors to ever exist. It was through this commitment that Harrison was able to touch the lives of so many, saving them from the grave effects of Rhesus.

A lot can be learned from a hero with a story as powerful as James Harrison’s. He teaches us that being a hero is not only what we are directly able to do for others, but also that the characteristics of selflessness and dedication are also important factors to demonstrate in order to truly be able to help others. Harrison is a very extraordinary man, as he was able to save millions of lives through his blood donations, charity, and devotion; although not everyone happens to have the cure for a disease running through their veins, we can follow his exemplary actions by doing what is within our reach so as to assist others in our own ways. From cleaning local beaches to donating a kidney to someone in need, every little thing that we do will have an impact on someone or something. Like Harrison, we can become heroes by serving others so that we can make a difference in their lives; in doing this, we are not only helping others but also becoming better versions of ourselves.

Works Cited

"Australian man 'with the golden arm' retires from donating blood aged 81 after saving 2.4m babies." Telegraph Online, 14 May 2018. Gale In Context: High School, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A538668602/SUIC?u=powa9245&sid=SUIC&xid=5bcd53e5. Accessed 3 Dec. 2019.

Hank Green. “How Can One Person’s Blood Save 2 Million Babies?” YouTube, uploaded by SciShow, 6 December 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnczwrxP-jc.

"He's the 'Man with the Golden Arm'." Modern Healthcare, 28 May 2018, p. 0036. Gale In Context: High School, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A540936806/SUIC?u=powa9245&sid=SUIC&xid=2a97073f. Accessed 3 Dec. 2019.

"James Harrison." Encyclopedia of World Biography Online, vol. 32, Gale, 2012. Gale In Context: High School, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/K1631009748/SUIC?u=powa9245&sid=SUIC&xid=d09bb4cc. Accessed 3 Dec. 2019.

Stevens, Matt. “'Man With the Golden Arm' Saved Millions of Australian Babies With His Blood.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 May 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/05/14/world/australia/australian-blood-donor.html.

Page created on 2/1/2020 3:15:58 AM

Last edited 2/4/2020 9:04:01 AM

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Related Links

"American Red Cross - Red Cross Blood Drive" - Like James Harrison, we can also donate blood to make a difference in someone else's life.
"Feeding America: US Hunger Relief Organization" - Another great way to do something for others is to volunteer at Feeding America, a nonprofit organization that feeds the homeless.