Chaunte Cardwell – from Near Death to Freedom
Chaunte Cardwell – Ogden, Utah – 1986
Shortly after I was born, my parents decided to become Jehovah’s Witnesses. My dad was an elder, and everyone in our family pioneered during the summer while I was growing up. I was baptized in 1986 at thirteen years of age, in Ogden, Utah. We were the picture-perfect JW family. Even today, people identify me as Brother Salazar’s daughter.
I became a regular pioneer after getting married in 1991. After two children and a move from Utah to Tennessee, my husband decided he didn’t want to be a JW any longer. Now a former JW, he was a good provider for me and the girls, but worked away from home more than 300 days a year.
Because I was now married to an unbeliever, I received help from several members of our congregation. The kids and I rarely missed a meeting, and I went in the door-to-door work every week. I did what a good JW mother was expected to do, monitoring our entertainment and association, and studying with the kids once a week.
One Saturday afternoon after field service, one of my good JW friends and I took our kids to a park in Nashville. Later, the girls and I spent the night with a JW family, and the next morning we all went to the Sunday meeting. While at the Kingdom Hall, I felt sick and dizzy, so I spent most of the meeting in the mother’s room. While there, another sister nursing her baby thought I might be pregnant, so I took a pregnancy test after the meeting and it turned out to be positive.
That evening while talking on the phone with my JW friend Jenn, my stomach started to act up. So I told her that I needed to use the bathroom, and I would call her back. Once in the bathroom, the pain was unbelievable. I asked my oldest daughter, who was six years old, to call her grandparents.
Her grandmother answered the phone and suspected this was serious. She and my father-in-law dropped everything and drove to our house, picked up the girls and I, and we rode with them to the hospital. At this point my memory becomes fuzzy, as I was in and out of consciousness.
In the hospital I began vomiting, and shortly thereafter my mom and sister arrived. My sister immediately asked where my Durable Power of Attorney (DPA) was, since this was now the standard document that replaced the old blood cards. Since I didn’t think to bring it, she drove to my house and brought it back.
Later, my sister-in-law, a non-JW nurse, showed up at the hospital and did her best to convince me that I needed to take blood. “The kids need you and God does not want you to die”, she said. “No one has to know if you take blood. It will be just between you and me.” But I stubbornly refused.
Finally the hospital staff moved me to another room. The nurse and my mom kept trying to help me get up onto a table. I kept passing out, and the last time I didn’t wake up and soiled myself. I was in shock and my hemoglobin had dropped to 1.7 – the normal range is 12 – 15.5 grams per deciliter.
After a blood test and ultrasound, I was told that I was six weeks along with an ectopic pregnancy. The pregnancy likely occurred in my fallopian tube, which carries eggs from the ovaries to the uterus, rather than the uterus itself. The uterus is made to sustain pregnancy, the fallopian tube cannot. In an ectopic pregnancy, the fertilized egg cannot survive and bursts the fallopian tube as it grows larger. In my case the growing tissue was causing life-threatening bleeding. I had been bleeding internally all day as the rupture worsened.
I remember being half aware of a nurse coming in to get my blood type and a cross match, in case I changed my mind. I woke right up and told her I would not change my mind. The staff was now having trouble finding a doctor who would perform surgery without blood. Everyone had refused, saying I wouldn’t survive without it. All during this time my husband was still working in Canada. He was not able to get a flight home until the next day.
By now I was confined to lying full-time on an inverted table in order to move blood towards my heart. I was in-and-out of consciousness. Elders and members of the congregation were showing up, as well as the Hospital Liaison Committee (HLC). They all did their best to unduly influence me to not take blood. This was good news for my mom and sister, because it helped reinforce in their minds that not taking blood was the right thing to do; it’s what Jehovah wanted me to do.
I did have the good fortune of a pioneer sister who came to see me, although she was careful to make sure that no JW heard our conversation. She asked to see my DPA. I had marked “No fractions.” Whispering in my ear, she suggested I change that. The Watchtower organization now accepted all blood fractions. She convinced me that by accepting blood fractions there was a chance the fractions would build up my blood. So I promptly and privately informed the staff that I would now take blood fractions.
Under this condition, a physician finally agreed to do the surgery. He woke me up and said I would probably not survive the surgery, and to tell my children goodbye. I reminded him that I’d prefer to die now and be with my kids forever in paradise rather than live the short time until Armageddon, and be dead forever. This is what I expected would happen had I accepted whole blood or one of the forbidden components.
I kissed my family goodbye, and prayers were said. I had arrived at the hospital at 8:30 pm and my surgery started at 2:30 am the next morning. I survived the surgery and was placed in a drug induced coma. My husband arrived and said that I was grey and green, and looked like I was dead when he first saw me.
While I was sleeping, my family and the HLC were fighting for a doctor to give me the erythropoietin (EPO) shot. This is normally given to cancer patients. But no one would agree to prescribe it for me, because it takes several days for it to work. In my condition, the odds were that I would likely die before it did any good.
Erythropoietin (EPO) is a hormone produced by the kidney, which promotes the formation of red blood cells by the bone marrow. The EPO stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. The resulting rise in red cells increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.
I am unsure how many days passed, but they finally found a family doctor, who would prescribe the EPO. My injections started the day I woke up. I received the shot once a day for three days. I can only imagine how horrible this time was for my family. They are rarely willing to talk about it.
The arguments with my surgeon and unbelieving family also started the day I woke up. My husband did not agree with my decision, but he respected it. Over and over I had to defend my choice, quoting what I would later learn was misinformation coming from Watchtower.
I was finally able to go home. Since my husband had left to go back to work in Canada, sisters from the local congregation brought food and helped with chores. At day seven of my first EPO shot, I woke up as good as new. At my follow-up with the doctor, who prescribed the EPO, he didn’t recognize me. He never thought to use erythropoietin for a need like mine, but he would consider it in the future.
Two weeks later I made it to Sunday meeting. I was a star! I had refused blood and lived. The circuit overseer was visiting and talked about it from the platform. His prayer made me cry, as he was the first to pray for the baby I had lost. Everyone else had forgotten I had just lost a child; they were so focused on the blood issue.
I continued being a good JW and in 2005, four years later, I delivered a healthy baby boy. When he was two years old, I had an epiphany and started to think seriously about whether I would allow any of my children to die if they needed a blood transfusion. That triggered a moment of doubt, and I decided to do my own research online and do it privately.
I googled Watchtower and blood transfusions and that’s where I found the AJWRB website. It proved to be a treasure trove of scientific facts along with good biblical information.
The specific bit of information that broke Watchtower’s hold on me was reading about how JWs in Bulgaria can receive blood without negative consequences. I had once been willing to let my kids die for this rule. But had I been living in Bulgaria, God’s law on blood would somehow not have been applicable for me! How can JW’s in one country accept blood when others couldn’t?
It was also helpful for me to ponder on a post on AJWRB.org, which described blood fractions. The article really simplified it, at least for me, by comparing fractions to all the ingredients of a cake. So Watchtower’s blood policy was in fact like being able to accept all the ingredients of cake, but not the cake.
If this was a law from Jehovah, which made me choose to die and leave my kids motherless, or makes parents fight for their kids to not receive blood even though they may die, shouldn’t it apply to everyone?
Recent photo of Chaunte Cardwell and her family
I saw way too much human involvement in this. I began looking at other policies and rules from Watchtower. After careful and extensive research, it was obvious to me that many of Watchtower’s policies were man-made, human interpretations. In 2010 I wrote my letter of disassociation. One elder who received it told me he was ignoring my letter and suggested that I just drift away. I am not sure and I don’t care, but I suspect that I have now been disfellowshipped in the congregation where I had nearly died.
Seventeen years later, I still suffer from memory loss as a result of the massive amounts of blood I lost from my ectopic pregnancy and related complications. I can live with that. But there is something I would not be able to accept.
Even back then, I believed I lived so I could help someone else not make the kind of choice I did. Now that you know my story, please do your own personal research. It could save a life—your life, a life of a friend or a child!