March 17, 2010 -- He may not be Irish. But Jim Becker of Racine, Wis., may be the only football fan in the U.S. who can make the case that his love for his team saved his life from an illness dubbed "the Celtic disease."
The Packers returned the honor this weekend, inducting the 80-year-old into the team's Fans Hall of Fame.
Becker has faithfully followed the Green Bay Packers for 56 years since shortly after he returned from the Korean War in 1952. As father of a growing family -- he eventually had 11 children -- he scraped together extra money to buy tickets by donating blood.
"At that time they were paying $15 dollars a pint. That more than covered the tickets," said Becker, who recalled paying $12 for a ticket to the infamous "ice bowl "championship game in 1967, where the temperature was 12 below zero.
It wasn't until 1975 that Becker's doctors told him his years of blood donation may have dampened the effects of an undiagnosed case of hemochromatosis -- a blood disorder that took his father's life.
The Irish have much higher rates of the mutation than most of the world's population. "Some people call it the Celtic disease," said Dr. Victor Gordeuk, professor of medicine at Howard University and specialist in hemochromatosis. Gordeuk added that some people theorize Irish immigration, even back to the Viking times, spread the mutation to northern Europe and, particularly, Scandinavia.
Doctors say the only treatment for hemochromatosis is to give blood periodically -- about one unit of blood per week until iron levels get back to normal. It's a lot simpler than employing leeches, part of the popular bloodletting therapy from centuries past that is still used in alternative medicine today for a variety of ailments.
"This is one disease left in medicine that we treat where we take blood off and throw it out," said Dr. Fred Askari, associate professor at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor. Askari said nowadays, many blood donation centers won't accept blood from someone with hemochromatosis, although he said it's safe to use.
"It's kind of surprising that no one looked for it (in Becker)," said Askari.
Threatened With Early Death
"My dad died when he was 43," said Becker, who said his father never showed any symptoms of the condition until three days before his death. "He was not feeling good, then his organs failed."
Twenty-five years later, when Becker was 45, his company asked about his father's death on a routine physical questionnaire, which led to blood tests. Becker said he also had no symptoms of hemochromatosis, but later blood work showed he had high iron levels.
"With this genetic condition, instead of absorbing one milligram of iron, you absorb three or four milligrams of iron a day," said Gordeuk. He added that most people have a store of about 800 milligrams of iron in their body at any given point.
"Over the years you can absorb more iron in your body. It can lead to an early death," said Gordeuk. "People may get toxic amounts of iron, typically ranging around from 40 to 60 years of age, and can have an early age diabetes, heart failure, or liver failure."
Becker still needed treatment, but he said doctors thought his years of giving blood slowed the toxic buildup he would have normally experienced.
"They said if I hadn't done that, that most likely I would have been dead by 45," said Becker.
"It's possible that he's right," said Gordeuk. "Maybe his donating blood to go to football did it."
Gordeuk said doctors discovered the genetic mutation behind hemochromatosis in 1996. Although now, people can be diagnosed using a genetic test, in 1975, people were only diagnosed through family history and high iron levels in the blood. Blood banks often did not test just for iron levels.
In America, about five per every 1,000 people inherit two copies of the mutated genes, Gordeuk said. But not everyone with both copies will go on to develop the toxic effects of hemochromatosis.
Gordeuk said Becker could have been one of the unfortunate people with the genetic disposition who do go on to develop toxic levels of iron "if he (Becker) was donating blood regularly, and then despite that, they made the diagnosis of hemochromatosis because he had high levels of iron in his body."
Becker has to give more blood than he used to in order to pay for Packers games. Worse, Becker says he now has to pay to get his blood taken as part of his treatment.
But those years of donating blood paid him back in more ways than one, when the Packers inducted him into the Fans Hall of Fame.
"Right off the bat, I got $500 in merchandise. We got four club seats, and that's about $1,000 right there," said Becker. He also won two tickets to an away game, including airfare and accommodations.
"With 11 children, I'm going to have a tough time deciding who's going to the game," he said.