Woman who refused blood transfusion died after hysterectomy
By David Kosub
Court rules in favour of surgeon in case of Jehovah's Witness
CHILLIWACK, B.C. ? A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ruled in favour of a local surgeon following an eight-year lawsuit that tested the validity of a release form signed by a Jehovah's Witness patient who died following a hysterectomy.
On April 15, 1996, Dr. John Robertson performed surgery on a 35-year-old woman that was to have lasted about 160 minutes. Instead, the operation took more than four hours and resulted in the loss of approximately four litres of blood. The woman was moved to intensive care following surgery and died the following day.
As she had done on other occasions, the patient, a Jehovah's Witness, had signed a form releasing doctors and the hospital from responsibility for any unfavourable consequences as a result of her decision not to receive blood transfusions.
The woman's lawyer subsequently argued that the doctor should still be held liable for negligence after admitting that he could have switched the method of hysterectomy earlier in the operation and stopped massive blood loss.
Reversing an earlier Supreme Court judgment, Justice Ian Pitfield said ultimately the patient had been informed about the risk of bleeding from the type of hysterectomy and had signed a form prohibiting any transfusions and accepted any risk from the operation, including death. Because the woman's family has 30 days to appeal the decision, Dr. Robertson has been instructed by his lawyer not to comment.
Dr. Alex Bartel, medical director of Chilliwack General Hospital, where the surgery was performed, said while surgeons can take some comfort from the ruling, they still walk "a fine line" providing their patients with the very best of care and respecting their religious beliefs. He said several physicians at Chilliwack General will not operate on Jehovah's Witness patients. "They say I would rather not put myself or the patient in that kind of a difficult situation."
Instead, the patients are transferred to a tertiary site with the technical capacity to use the patient's own blood for transfusions. This was a recommendation of the British Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, which also investigated the case eight years ago.
The college did not find grounds for disciplinary action against Dr. Robertson.