March 10, 2002
Jehovah's Witness man shunned after consenting to daughter's blood transfusion
CALGARY (CP) -- Shunned by the Jehovah's Witnesses he once embraced, he's a now lonely man, ignored by family and friends as if he were a wandering ghost.
He's been "lost" for almost a month, ever since defying his faith by consenting to blood transfusions for his 16-year-old leukemia-stricken daughter.
The 51-year-old Calgary father -- who can't be named under laws protecting the identity of his daughter -- knew he would pay a high price. Even the daughter whose life might be saved by his decision sometimes says she hates him.
"I was under tremendous pressure," he said in a recent interview. "Because I knew that if I went against what the church taught, that I would be excommunicated and no Jehovah's Witness would ever speak to me again, including my family."
His wife now comes home only to do laundry, and his other two daughters, 14 and 22, want little to do with him.
They've banned him from his daughter's hospital room when Witness meetings are piped in over the speaker phone. Meetings occur several times a week and sometimes last all day.
And he is ignored by his friends.
"It's as though I don't exist."
The shunning is used on any Jehovah's Witness who challenges such tenets as the prohibition against blood transfusions, which the members of the religious organization believe is spelled out in several Bible passages.
"When I made the decision with a clear conscience, I went into my daughter's hospital room. My whole family was there, and I told them about my decision, saying, 'No matter what happens with this case, I still love you, each and every one of you.'
"And their reply, each of them, was, 'We hate you and we'll never speak to you again.' "
Doctors say the best available treatment for his daughter's potentially fatal disease is blood transfusions and chemotherapy. She has received those treatments several times over the last three weeks at the Alberta Children's Hospital.
According to the girl's lawyer, when she is taken to the operating room for a transfusion, she uses what little strength she has to resist.
"They semi-sedate her, hold her down on the bed and they give the blood transfusion," said David Gnam, whose law firm in Georgetown, Ont., works primarily for the Jehovah's Witnesses.
As the girl's condition improves, Gnam is looking for legal and medical alternatives to the transfusions.
"She's not trying to die," he said. "She would like treatment that would respect her wishes."
The family's ordeal began in mid-February, when the girl was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia after she went to the hospital for what she thought was a throat infection.
The family was devastated when the pediatrician broke the news.
"By the time she finished talking, everyone in my family was sitting on the floor," said the father. "I mean, it literally floored us. We couldn't even stand."
His daughter cried out, "I don't want to die!" and sobbed in her parents' arms.
The doctor told the family that there's a 40-50 per cent survival rate with blood transfusions and a 65 per cent chance with a bone marrow transplant.
They flatly rejected the suggested treatment, simply saying they were Jehovah's Witnesses.
But then the father opened his Bible to Acts 15:28, one of the passages the Witnesses cite for refusing blood transfusions. Over and over, he read:
"For the Holy Spirit and we ourselves, ask a favour adding no further burden to you except these necessary things: to abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from the things strangled and from fornication. If you carefully keep yourselves from these things, you will prosper. Good health to you."
He had read the words hundreds of times since becoming a Witness 20 years ago in Belleville, Ont. He had simply accepted what he was told in religious meetings: no heavenly paradise for those who accept another's blood.
"I was struggling with those scriptures and reading others that talk a great deal about the sanctity of life, how important life is," he said.
He finally concluded it would be wrong, even cruel, to watch his daughter die without trying to save her.
"I went over the scriptures with my daughter to try to help her understand the way I interpreted it," he said.
"She was not responsive to me. She wasn't interested."
If the teenager had agreed to a transfusion, she too would be disowned by her mother and her sisters, her father said.
"She's lived such an isolated, controlled life -- all her friends are Jehovah's Witnesses," he said.
He talks to his daughter each day on the phone. Sometimes she gets angry, telling him, "I hate you," but there are kinder, gentler moments when she says the opposite.
The few conversations he now has with his wife are brief.
"She gets very upset and cries," he said.
"She'd remind me that every time my daughter gets a blood transfusion she's being raped, it's having irreparable harm to my daughter."
He has had many sleepless nights in his empty home. He finds himself weeping uncontrollably at unexpected times -- in the car, sometimes with a mouth full of food.
He continues to work at an architectural firm and spends most of his time talking to lawyers and doctors, feeding his children's rabbits, and cleaning the house.
"Before, there were four people looking after the house. Now there's only myself."
He hasn't yet been expelled from the Jehovah's Witnesses. It's a formality he expects will soon happen.
"If you challenge them, then you know you're out. There's no tolerance for independent thought."