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 a new bar for flashy heroism.
Australia’s James Harrison, on the other hand, didn’t wear a costume or fight any villains. He wasn’t flashy or invincible; in fact, he was deathly afraid of needles. Yet over the course of his life, he played hero in a super way. This 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 — maybe that of a rejected James Bond villain — 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.” He’s lucky, as other bizarre health conditions tend to be far less positive.
In 2011, for instance, a North Carolina construction worker began taking a course of antibiotics to treat a thumb injury. His hand healed up in no time, but the medicine seemed to leave him with some unusual lingering effects.
“Brain fog” was the first significant change he noticed, likening it to the buzz you feel after chugging a few beers. This fogginess was followed by several other symptoms, including memory problems, moodiness, and even depression.
It wasn’t until three years later that the man sought treatment for his symptoms. He was prescribed antidepressants, though these failed to generate a noticeable change in the man’s behavior.
Things only seemed to get worse from here, as his symptoms began to grow increasingly dangerous. He was dizzy, lightheaded, and at one point he suffered a serious fall that caused bleeding in his brain.
But the worst of it came when the man’s symptoms flared up while behind the wheel of his car. He swerved between lanes like a drunk driver, eventually leading to an officer pulling him over.
Despite the man’s insistence that he hadn’t been drinking, the officer didn’t believe him. He refused a breathalyzer, opting to be transported to a hospital where his test results left doctors slack-jawed.
The man’s BAC was 0.2, more than twice the legal limit and the equivalent of consuming ten drinks an hour. And whether the doctors believed him or not, the man was actually telling the truth — he really hadn’t been drinking that night.
Upon further testing, the man finally discovered the source of his symptoms: fungi. But we’re not talking mushrooms here — we’re talking about Saccharomyces cerevisiae, more commonly known as brewer’s yeast. And it was growing in his gut.
Marco Verch / Flickr
Doctors believed the antibiotics the man had taken for his hand injury had wiped out most of the good bacteria from his digestive tract, making it more susceptible to infection. While on the job, it’s likely the man had unknowingly inhaled Saccharomyces spores, leading to their presence in his stomach.
But how did this explain the man’s symptoms? Unlike other kinds of fungi, Saccharomyces feed on carbohydrates rather than oxygen and create ethanol — the kind of alcohol we drink — as a byproduct. This fungi was basically brewing booze in this guy’s gut.
Goshen Brewing Company
As insane as this may sound, cases like this have been popping up all over the world as far back as 1912. Coined auto-brewery syndrome (ABS), this condition actually poses far more risks than its name would suggest.
If left unchecked, a person suffering from ABS may inadvertently raise their BAC to fatal levels. By simply consuming a large amount of carbs, one runs the risk of alcohol poisoning despite never touching a drop.
An undiagnosed ABS sufferer also poses significant danger to those around them, just as we saw in the case of the man in his car. A person with ABS may attempt to get behind the wheel and drive without even realizing they’re drunk.
Paul Hamilton / Flickr
Unfortunately, it’s easy to dismiss many of the symptoms of ABS as drunkenness. In fact, the manifestation of this condition is nearly identical to how one would feel after having a few too many.
“These patients have the exact same implications of alcoholism: the smell, the breath, drowsiness, gait changes,” explained Fahad Malik, chief internal medicine resident at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “They will present as someone who’s intoxicated by alcohol, but the only difference here is that these patients can be treated by antifungal medications.”
Shortly after his diagnosis, the man traveled to an Ohio clinic where he was given a probiotic regiment that seemed to do the trick. He was also advised to avoid carbs at all costs, which worked to keep his ABS at bay… for a time.
After a few symptom-free weeks the man’s ABS returned full-force, at one point raising his BAC to nearly 0.4. This time, however, nothing his doctors prescribed seemed to do him any good.
It wasn’t until the man got in touch with researchers at the Richmond University Medical Center that he was given a mix of antifungal therapies and probiotics that worked for him. His symptoms gradually subsided, and after a year of treatment he was able to resume a normal lifestyle.
This included reintroducing carbs into his diet, something the man was a little too eager to do. At one point, he actually relapsed after binging on pizza and soda without telling his doctors.
Since then, he’s continued taking probiotics in addition to watching his carb intake. He also keeps a breathalyzer on hand and checks his BAC regularly, something he hopes a cop will never try to do to him again.
But if this guy’s bringing the booze, then Susan Root will definitely be providing the music. A native of Coggeshall, Essex, the school custodian began hearing something in 2013 she just couldn’t explain while at work one day.
Faintly, as if it were being pumped through the sound system at low volume, Susan heard the 1950s hit “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” by Patti Page. It was a pleasant blast of nostalgia for the 63-year-old.
“My mum said I used to like it when I was a little girl,” she said. Delighted by the tune that reminded her of home, Susan looked for the source. “How much is that doggie in the window?” the bubbly lyrics went. “The one with the waggly tail.”
But there was no source. At least, not one that she could pinpoint. Stranger still, no matter where in the school she was, the music played at the same volume and went on and on, Patti Page continually inquiring about the cost of a cute dog.
By the time the workday ended, Susan pinpointed where the song was coming from: her head. Aggravated, but no stranger to a musical ear worm, Susan eventually packed up her equipment and headed home to her husband, Graham, a retired lorry driver.
On the way home, Susan silenced the radio. She didn’t need it, not with Patti’s constant crooning. But in that moment, the lightheartedness of the song was lost on her. “It kept repeating, repeating,” she said. “It frightened me.” Graham would know what was causing this.
But when she got home, the true extent of her problem was finally revealed. She could barely understand a word her husband was saying! “He shouts at me,” Susan said, “because I can’t hear very well.” Not with Patti pumping, at least.
Susan, though, was a trooper. For years, she’d battled different ear problems. Infections, a perforated ear drum, and balance issues had her in and out of doctors’ offices and even sent her into surgery twice. The doggie in the window, she figured, was just another storm to whether.
Except, this became her new normal. Day after day, night after night, for four years, Patti Page sang and sang, lyrically reminding an agonized Susan of her need for the doggie in the window, so that her husband might stay safe from robbers with flashlights.
Over those years, Susan found some reprieve. At least sort of. Because eventually Patti’s song left her head, only to be replaced in an instant by a slew of other nostaligic, childhood songs she once held fond feelings for.
“God Save The Queen,” “Happy Birthday,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and, most recently, Judy Garland’s rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” danced through her head. Every effort she made to earn just a second of silence fell short.
Even white noise machines that played sounds of waves crashing, whales calling, or winds whistling couldn’t block out the music. At night, she lay awake in agony, staring at the ceiling, dreaming of peace. “It’s driving me mental,” she said.
Finally fed up with the “radio in her head” that she couldn’t “turn off,” Susan paid a visit to doctors, hoping experts might have a solution for her. When she explained her symptoms, they were flabbergasted.
The initial diagnosis was simple: tinnitus. Simply put, that’s just when you perceive a sound that isn’t being generated externally. Things like a ringing in your ears get diagnosed as tinnitus. To Susan, her case seemed a little more, well, extreme.
So doctors went one step further, explaining she suffered from “musical hallucinations.” These are, as The British Tinnitus Association wrote, “short fragments of simple melodies…often mistaken for real music until it becomes clear that none is being played.” Still, this didn’t quite cover Susan’s issues.
That’s because Susan suffered from debilitating musical hallucinations, something only 1 percent of tinnitus diagnoses can claim. This can be a symptom of hearing loss, which would explain why the music in Susan’s head drowned out her husband — she already couldn’t hear him!
To combat the issue, doctors gave Susan a hearing aid…which didn’t work at all. Defeated, the now-retired custodian didn’t bother going back to the drawing board. “I’ve come to accept that I’m probably going to be stuck with this hellish condition for the rest of my life,” she said.
“I am getting really fed up,” an exhausted Susan said four years after she first heard Patti Page in her ear, hoping for a bargain on a dog. “People think it is funny but they don’t understand — it’s hell.”
Unfortunately, just as Patti Page never found out the price of that doggie in the window, Susan Root couldn’t figure out how to silence the music in her head. But one medical miracle kept her hopes alive that there was a fix out there.
That miracle started and ended with Gemma Cairns. At first, she thought everyone could hear the way she could. After all, she never knew what it was like to not hear a constant whooshing noise, or static, or an incessant squeak from the back of her head.
Our childhoods were noisy, but at the end of the day, we were all able to retreat to the silence of our beds. Like Susan Root, Gemma didn’t have this luxury. Even buried under the covers, she was inundated with noise…
“There are always noises going on,” Gemma said. “I’ve never heard complete silence.” As a teenager, she finally realized that something was wrong: She was alone in her inability to experience silence, and she knew it was time to seek help. Sound familiar?
This realization was the start of a fourteen-year journey for answers. For Gemma, there was only one way to describe what she thought everyone understood: “I’ve always heard my eyes moving and my heartbeat in my head.”
As you may expect, this was a strange complaint for doctors to hear. Where do you go from “I can hear my eyeballs move?” For years, Gemma was prescribed medication for nasal issues and blocked ears, but nothing worked.
Super-sonic hearing, Gemma decided, was just something she was born to endure. Besides, now that she was an adult, she had more important things to focus on: her son. But even caring for him became difficult.
“I still go to work…but it affects things like playing with my son…if there are more than a couple noises going on at once it can overstimulate me,” Gemma described. She lived her life in fear of loud noises…
At least, until the day came that she couldn’t live with the noise. In 2016, Gemma saw a specialist in hopes of taking control of her hearing. But when she sat with the doctor and told her story yet again, she felt doubtful.
She tried to describe a sound that doesn’t exist: “People ask me what it sounds like…[I] just can’t tell you a sound that sounds even remotely similar to it,” Gemma said. But after examining her, the specialist told Gemma what she’d been waiting to hear.
Johns Hopkins Medicine
The specialist gave her a diagnosis: Bilateral Superior Semicircular Canal Dehiscence. This would be intimidating for most people to hear, but for Gemma, it was music to her ears. A diagnosis wasn’t just an answer — it was hope for a cure.
New Treatment for Superior Semicircular Canal Dehiscence
The reason Gemma could hear her own blood flowing through her veins was because she was missing part of the temporal bone in both ear canals. This on its own sounds unusual, but Gemma soon learned that she was a walking medical marvel.
See, not only does the condition affect just 1-2% of the population, but it only starts happening to people in their 40s. Gemma was in her 30s when she visited the specialist, but she’d been experiencing the condition since birth.
Rankin & Bass
What makes the condition so difficult to diagnose and treat is how specific the symptoms are to the individual. Some people go through years of psychiatric therapy before realizing the problem isn’t in their brain, and seriously disturbing symptoms are left untreated…
Some people find that their eye movements are in sync with their pulse, meaning they’re always sensing motion. Others constantly hear the vibrations of their own voice, and if you’re like Gemma, this can make hearing anything at all a challenge.
Rare Historical Photos
“With some frequencies, I just can’t hear at all. I really struggle with deep voices,” she explained. To anyone without the condition, hearing these descriptions of it is terrifying. But Gemma was always aware of how much worse her situation could be.
“Sometimes I just want to sit…and not hear anything,” she admitted. “I feel bad saying it because it’s not like I’m dying, but it does take its toll.” Imagine feeling constantly dizzy and off-balance — that was Gemma’s everyday life.
But maybe not for much longer. Gemma’s specialist gave her hope for the first time by suggesting a procedure that would correct the problem in each ear…but the surgery didn’t come without its risks.
For one, the surgery could only be done in one ear at a time, meaning Gemma would be bed ridden with excruciating dizziness and tinnitus during the recovery period. With only one ear corrected, it would mean going through the painful surgery process twice.
Kansas City Home Medical Supply
But as she heard the whooshing in her ears, it was an easy decision to make. Last September, Gemma underwent surgery in one of her ears, and months later, she was shocked to hear something she had never before experienced…
All That’s Interesting
Silence. Though it was only in one of her ears, for the first time in her life, she didn’t hear the movement of her blood or of her eyes. And in October of 2019, she hopes to achieve complete silence…
From feeling perpetually “drunk” to being almost fully recovered, Gemma hopes that other people with the rare disorder have the courage to seek answers. After dealing with the condition for years, Gemma has arrived at a sound hypothesis.
All That’s Interesting
“It’s a rare condition, but I think it’s more undiagnosed than anything else,” she explained. “People have it but they don’t know they can get help.” When it comes to this noisy condition, the last thing Gemma wants is for others to live in silence.