When speaking medicine with someone who doesn’t care for Jehovah’s Witnesses, one finds that “blood transfusion” is always linked with “life-saving.” There are no exceptions. The noun and adjective must never be separated. At least, not until recently. At long last, the link is beginning to crumble. “Life-threatening” is fast emerging as a reality to offset, in part, the “life-saving.” Not among JW detractors, of course, who will still be chanting “life-saving blood transfusions” as they are lowered into their graves. But among those who actually keep up with things, matters are changing fast.
It is the only conclusion one can reach upon reading the April 26, 2008 New Scientist magazine. Entitled ‘An Act of Faith in the Operating Room,’ an article reviews study after study, and concludes that for all but the most catastrophic cases, blood transfusions harm more than they help. Says Gavin Murphy, a cardiac surgeon at the Bristol Heart Institute in the UK: “There is virtually no high-quality study in surgery, or intensive or acute care, outside of when you are bleeding to death, that shows that blood transfusion is beneficial, and many that show it is bad for you.” Difficulties stem from blood deteriorating in even brief storage, from its assault on the immune system, and from its impaired ability to deliver oxygen. In short, the “act of faith” referred to is not withholding a blood transfusion. It is giving one.
One study cited is from the journal Circulation, vol 116, p 2544: “For almost 9000 patients who had heart surgery in the UK between 1996 and 2003, receiving a red cell transfusion was associated with three times the risk of dying in the following year and an almost six fold risk of dying within 30 days of surgery compared with not receiving one. Transfusions were also associated with more infections and higher incidences of stroke, heart attack and kidney failure—complications usually linked to a lack of oxygen in body tissues.”
Once before I ventured into the blogosphere with similar thoughts and I count myself lucky to have escaped with my life: “You are welcome to your belief that blood is a dangerous substance that God wants you to avoid,” said Charlie. “But please, don’t claim that you are doing so out of reason.” “In the USA we have the inalienable right to be idiots, as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else,” lectured Chemish. From Stanley: “Refusing a life-saving blood transfusion (which hasn’t even any side effects) is clearly insane if the refusal is just because of the blood transfusion itself.” Greg: “Why is this crazy religion not a form of mental incompetence?” Justin: “My take on the matter is that ultimately anyone who subscribes to the no-blood doctrine has been brainwashed and is not fit to make decisions for themselves on this basis.”
And you should have heard them when I mentioned Dr. Bruce Speiss. They went positively apoplectic when he dared to use the R-word: “So it’s just largely been a belief system—almost a religion, if you will—that if you give a unit of blood, patients will get better” “What a crank!” they charged. He must be a Jehovah’s Witness himself. (He is not, but he might as well become one, for he will now have to deny it to his dying day.) Isn’t he the fellow selling cherry cola as a blood substitute? Didn’t he buy his medical degree online?
But now it turns out that everything Dr. Speiss said was correct—yes, even the religion part. Says New Scientist: “At first glance it seems astonishing that a technique used so widely for so long could be doing such harm. Yet many surgeons have proved reluctant to submit their methods to systematic study….[Their] assumptions went untested for the better part of a century”
And you should have seen these guys carry on when I suggested that the medical community would one day owe a debt to Jehovah’s Witnesses for setting them on the right track, urging the development of bloodless medicine. “Scientists invented bloodless medicine all by themselves!” they shrieked, guided only by their Scientific Method—climbing ever upward and onward—fearlessly pushing the bounds of human knowledge—all to the glorification of Science! “They don’t give two hoots about your pissy little religion!”
But in fact, some of them do. “[Bloodless surgery] was originally developed to enable Jehovah’s Witnesses, who shun transfusions, to undergo major surgery,” states the article, and then considers some of its advantages. Indeed, New Scientist opens with scripture: “‘For the life of the flesh is in the blood. No soul of you shall eat blood.’ So says the Bible’s book of Leviticus, and it is for this reason that Jehovah’s Witnesses shun blood transfusions.” Perhaps, the magazine suggests, all persons should be treated as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Now, I don’t want to gloat over this development. I really don’t. Really and truly. Honestly.
On the other hand—Come on! You would too if you were in my shoes! For decades, we Witnesses were the ignorant slaves of superstition. Transfusion proponents, on the other hand, were the all-wise devotees of modern medical science. What right had we to not to do as we were told? I’ve known three persons in my lifetime who were told, point blank and without the slightest empathy, that they would die if they did not consent to a blood transfusion. None of these three consented. None died. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t smoke, they don’t do drugs, they don’t drink to excess—all factors whose health risks, by their sheer prevalence, far outweigh anything having to do with transfusions. They are entirely cooperative with all aspects of medical care, barring only one. Unless fixated on just that one item, a doctor could not ask for better patients.
These findings, so new to the medical establishment, are not new to us. Witnesses have been accumulating them for years, trying to share them with doctors, usually being rebuffed, all the while with the media whipping folks into near hysteria. All we ever wanted was that our own religious conscience be respected, that medical people would not huff, “It’s my way or the highway!” and run roughshod over our consciences. Treat it as an allergy ruling out the favored treatment, if you must, and do the best you can under those circumstances. Decades ago Jehovah’s Witnesses formed Hospital Information Service committees from local volunteers and sent them into medical establishments to keep them informed on the latest advances in bloodless medicine. Believe me, it was not easy. Constantly we had to contend with, “And what medical school did you get your degree from?” But it has paid off. Here and there, fearless doctors have acknowledged our point of view and have worked to accommodate it. We are most grateful to these medical pioneers, who usually had to withstand much pressure from their own peers.
Did the New Scientist article declare blood transfusions inadvisable in all circumstances? No. It is still thought to be the best option in cases of severe anemia and catastrophic blood loss. But perhaps these views, too, will change. After all, if blood threatens harm to a healthy person, can it really be the treatment of choice for a critically ill one? Surely something from the field of bloodless medicine will emerge as superior, if it hasn’t already.
Incidentally, blood banks apparently plan no changes at present. “If all blood had to be used within two weeks, it would cause a major inventory problem,” says James Isbister, an adviser to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service, quoted in the article. Right. Just like that time I bought a basket of spoiled fruit and spent the week in the bathroom with diarrhea. I wasn’t upset. I realized it was my duty to grin and bear it. I didn’t want to screw up their inventory.
Anti-Witness “activists” should scream about blood transfusion and Jehovah’s Witnesses? Witnesses are the safest religion out there. Have there been deaths due to their transfusion stand? They are made up for 1,000 times over by their no-tolerance policy of tobacco, illicit drugs, and overdrinking. An anti-Witness activist truly interested in preserving life would direct his or her attention almost anywhere else.
Of course, one must be cautious with the above statement lest it appear callous. The survivors of one who has died for any reason will not be comforted to know he could have died in numerous other ways—the JW death was unnecessary, their detractors will allege. Well, that can be equally said of all the other ones, with the added travesty that no principle lay behind them at all other than the mere pursuit of pleasure. If Witness opponents would “protect” people from making choices that they don’t want them to make, surely these far more numerous causes of death should incur their ire long before transfusion situations.
And how can extreme sports not be railed against, or even regular sports? It is not uncommon to read of youths dying in this way, and if we count paralysis or foreshortened life due to head trauma, the numbers greatly escalate. Did anyone watch the youngster, an accomplished athlete, soaring thirty feet in the air on the Olympics half-pipe, come down crashing on the edge, and then slide limp into the center track? How many children have died or been maimed trying to emulate that trick, the purpose of which is no more noble than shining before others as daredevil and providing entertainment? For that matter, do we not read of far more driving deaths for youngsters than for those older? Ban them from the road. Find the age with the lowest death stats and ban driving at any other age. Let us veer into hyperbolic here, so as to illustrate that it is possible to paint oneself a great fool in one’s quest to restrict the freedom of others.
The willingness to put one’s life on the line for almost any cause is accepted as a matter of individual choice, often laudable individual choice. Only with those from the Jehovah’s Witness community is an exception made in the popular media. When a youngster dies through daredevil sports, is the coach ever fingered as an accessory to murder, as Jehovah’s Witnesses have been with regard to transfusions? No. We all know it—children so dying are lionized for living life to the full and giving their all in the quest of their dreams. It is only when their dreams include God that they are painted as “cult” victims.
From the book TrueTom vs the Apostates!