Photo: TOM KURTZ, Stringer
In 1951, a 14-year-old Australian boy named James Harrison awoke from major breast surgery. The doctors had removed one of his lungs in a procedure lasting several hours – and kept him in the hospital for three months.
But Harrison was alive, largely thanks to a large amount of transfused blood he had received from his father
"He said that I had 13 blood units and my life was saved by unknown people," Harrison said for decades later CNNs Sanjay Gupta.
At that time, Australian laws required blood donors 18 years old. It would take four years for Harrison to be eligible, but he swore then he would become a blood donor when he was old enough.
After he turned 18, Harrison made good on his word and regularly donated whole blood with the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. He did not like needles, so he averted his eyes and tried to ignore the pain whenever he put it in his arm.
Meanwhile, doctors in Australia have struggled to figure out why thousands of births in the country cause miscarriages, stillbirths or brain defects for babies
"In Australia, literally thousands of babies died each year until about 1967, doctors did not know why and it was terrible, "Jemma Falkenmire from the Australian Red Cross Blood Service said Gupta. "Women had many miscarriages, and babies were born with brain damage."
The babies, it turned out, suffered from hemolytic disease of the newborn or HDN. The condition most commonly occurs when a woman with a negative Rh blood type becomes pregnant with a baby who has Rh-positive blood, and the incompatibility causes the mother's body to reject the red blood cells of the fetus.
Doctors recognized this, however, it could be possible to prevent HDN by injecting the pregnant woman with a donated plasma treatment with a rare antibody.
Researchers screened blood banks to see whose blood contained this antibody – and found a donor in New South Wales named James Harrison.
At this time, Harrison had regularly been giving Thoroughbred for more than a decade. He said he did not think twice about it when the scientists approached him to ask if he would participate in what would become known as the Anti-D program.
"You asked me to be a guinea pig." Harrison told the Sydney Morning Herald.
It was not long before the researchers developed an injection called Anti-D, which used plasma from Harrison's donated blood. The first dose was given in 1967 to a pregnant woman at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, reports Robyn Barlow, the Rh program coordinator who had found Harrison.
Harrison donated more than 60 years and his plasma was used for millions of anti-D injections, according to the Red Cross. Since about 17 percent of pregnant women in Australia need anti-D injections, the blood transfusion service estimated that Harrison helped 2.4 million babies in the country.
"Every ampoule of Anti-D ever made in Australia contains James." Barlow told the Sydney Morning Herald. "He saved millions of babies, I'm crying when I think about it."
Scientists are still not sure why Harrison's body produces the rare antibody, but he believes that it is related to the blood transfusions he received as a teenager. And over the decades, Harrison has warded off exorbitant praise for his regular trips to the blood donation center from his home in Umina Beach on the central coast of New South Wales.
He had never "considered stopping," he told the Daily Mail 2010.
"Probably my only talent is that I can be a blood donor," Harrison noted in CNN's 2015 Gupta, as the network followed him when he his 1.101. Donation made.
In the blood donation center, he greeted the nurses who had come to know him so well. As usual, he looked away as they inserted the needle and the duration of the appointment grabbed an orange stress ball in his right arm.
When a reporter asked if what he was doing was brave, Harrison narrowed his eyes and shook his head.
"That's the other rare thing about James," Falkenmire told the network. "He thinks his donations are the same as those of others, he does not think he's remarkable."
Countless others think Harrison is remarkable. Somewhere along the way he took the nickname "The Man with the Golden Arm" along with big and small awards, from the Medal of the Order of Australia 1999 to the cover of his local Yellow Pages in 2013.
In 2003 he landed in the Guinness Book of Records.
But in interviews, Harrison said the far-flung part of his unwavering commitment to donate plasma was the babies he helped rescue, including his own grandchildren.
"To say that I'm proud of James (my dad) is an understatement," wrote Harrisons daughter Tracey Mellowship on Facebook last month, noting that she received an anti-D injection in 1992 after the birth of her first had needed son. "Thanks to Dad, I gave birth to another healthy boy in 1995 …. Thank you Daddy for giving me the chance to have two healthy kids – your grandchildren XXX"
On Friday Harrison made his last trip to the blood donation center. By the age of 81, he had already exceeded the age limit for donors, and the blood donation service had decided that Harrison should stop donating to protect his health, the Sydney Morning Herald reported
When Harrison sat on the donation chair, four silver Mylar Balloons – with numbers 1, 1, 7, 3 – bobbled over him, depicting his 1173 total blood donations during his lifetime. Several parents had come to the hospital for the occasion – holding some of the babies who were rescued by his donations.
Barlow, the Rh program coordinator who found Harrison decades ago, hugged him long and emotionally  "We'll never see his kind again," Barlow told the Sydney Morning Herald. "It's very, very rare that he is healthy and fit and his veins are strong enough to continue donating for so long."
The blood transfusion officers said their hope was that more blood donors would come forward; maybe there will be another James Harrison among them. Currently, only about 200 donors qualify for the anti-D program.
Harrison told the Red Cross that he was anxious to surpass his legacy of 1,173 donations.
"I hope it's a record that someone breaks because it means that they're dedicated to the cause," said Harrison.