During my (what the hell was I thinking?) year in medical school, we would often have small group discussions on medical ethics. A scenario would be posed by the doctor leading the group, and we’d discuss possible ways of handling it.
Inevitably, we’d get a case where religion clashed with medicine. The classic example: A patient comes into the emergency room after having been in a bad car accident. The patient needs a blood transfusion. But wait! The patient is also a Jehovah’s Witness and the religion prohibits such actions. So what do you do?
The other students around me would ask if there were any known alternative procedures… or if there were any loopholes in the religion to allow for the transfusion to occur…
I wanted to empathize. But all I could think was that the hypothetical patient was just being ridiculous. If they needed the transfusion, it was my job to give it to them. If they refused it, then they would (should?) die, and so be it.
I didn’t dare say that out loud.
So, I admit that’s really cold and harsh. It got worse when the hypothetical patient was the child of Jehovah’s Witness parents… and they refused to let their child get a transfusion.
To me, that’s abuse. At that point, I don’t care about their faith at all. My interest is in protecting the child. And I’m not going to let someone’s absurd beliefs get in my way. To hell with any alternatives — let’s just go with what we know works.
I bring this up because of an article I read in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune about doctors who cater to the whims of Jehovah’s Witness patients.
… “A lot of [doctors] don’t want to touch Jehovah’s Witness patients because [they fear] they’ll get sued. I saw that these patients are sincere. They have a right to decide. I think they should be treated with the same respect” as anyone else making a medical choice [said Dr. Michael Tuchek.]
Methods used on Witness patients can create potentially harmful side effects, Tuchek said.
“Make the blood too thick, it can clot and cause a heart attack or stroke,” he said. “On the flip side, if you don’t give [Witnesses] the bone marrow boosting, they’re anemic and have low hemoglobin. They’re pale, they can’t breathe well, can’t exercise, they’re short of breath.”
Doctors and scientists are trying to come up with new alternatives to blood transfusions, he said.
The piece also mentions when Jehovah’s Witness’ children need help:
“If they’re under 18, the hospitals have the right to take custody and transfuse a child, and we understand that,” [Jehovah's Witness Hospital Liaison Committee chairman T.J.] Bullock said. “What the [committee] recommends is that we locate a pediatric doctor who has a good record of cooperation to maximize our position. … What we’re looking for is someone who is willing to push the envelope and do everything they can [to avoid a transfusion]. We try to make sure the court understands it’s not a negligent parent, it’s just a blood issue.”
Ok, so I’m all for progress and searching for the alternatives to blood transfusions. That’s great if doctors and scientists can find them. And I’m honestly happy that the doctors in the piece can care for the Jehovah’s Witness patients while still adhering to their beliefs. And it’s nice that there’s a committee in place to help those patients whose religious beliefs require them to undergo special procedures.
So why did this piece make me mad the whole time I read it?