When doctors at a New Jersey hospital pioneered a “bloodless” surgery program for patients who refused blood transfusions on religious grounds, they discovered something totally unexpected: Jehovah’s Witnesses, who would choose death over a transfusion, recovered just as well as transfused patients — and in many cases, even better.
They suffered fewer post-surgery complications, spent less time on mechanical breathing machines and had shorter stays in intensive care.
Recently, doctors from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio reported that Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused blood transfusions while undergoing cardiac surgery were significantly less likely to need another operation for bleeding compared with non-Witnesses who were transfused. They were also less likely to suffer a post-op heart attack or kidney failure.
Are the Jehovah’s Witnesses onto something?
While Jehovah’s Witnesses have taught doctors that the body can compensate for extraordinarily low levels of hemoglobin, levels that are too low mean the cells and tissues in the brain and other vital organs become starved of oxygen.
Hebert has watched Jehovah’s Witnesses die for refusing to be transfused, an experience that leaves the medical team feeling helpless. “But you can’t force your values on someone else,” he says.
Hebert says more research and education is needed to help doctors decide how long they can safely wait before ordering blood, how much blood they should give and when to hold off giving any blood at all.
“The problem is that we don’t have the data,” Hebert said. “In many cases, we just don’t know.”