A 14 year old from the Seattle area recently refused blood transfusions deemed crucial by his doctors. He died. The news media picked up the story and gave it wide publicity, almost all of it unfavorable to the boy’s convictions. This post is to put things in perspective. It is what the boy would want, I am confident. He would not like to see his sincere religious conviction dragged through the mud by persons speaking from emotion.
That said, death of a young person is always tragic, no question about it. You can be sure he would have far rather lived. Yet people routinely put their lives on the line for any number of causes, and they are generally lauded as heroes for it, not deluded nuts. Which are they? Take the one who “gives his life for his country,” for example. Only some of that person’s own countrymen will think his death noble. Everyone else will conclude he died in vain.
The lad suffered from leukemia. Nobody imagined they could cure him. Instead doctors thought he would likely (70% chance) survive at least for the next 5 years with their regimen which included transfusions.* The courageous youngster, Dennis Lindberg, was assessed by a judge who interviewed the parents, his aunt (who had custody), social workers and the boy's doctor. “I don't believe Dennis' decision is the result of any coercion,” the judge stated. “He is mature and understands the consequences of his decision."
Oddly enough, the boy’s natural parents emerge as relative heroes in the story since they opposed the judge’s ruling. The article states: “For Dennis Lindberg, most of his childhood depended on the kindness of strangers to help him survive…..It is a saga that began when he was a baby born to parents addicted to methamphetamine.” The article highlights consequent hardship the boy endured for 10 years before the boy’s aunt was awarded custody. The natural parents have lately completed a drug treatment program so as to get their lives back on track.
Okay, now for the perspective, which I know the young man would want. He would not want to be portrayed as a fanatic nor the victim of fanatics. (The boy’s father states "My sister has done a good job of raising him for the past four years,” though he feels she imposed her religious beliefs on him. The facts speak otherwise. Dennis had made the beliefs his own.
Don't more youngsters die each year in high school sports than in refusing transfusions? Each year I read a few local examples of the former. I'm not sure I would know any of the latter were it not for news media relaying any such event around the globe. Does anyone think high school sports should be banned or it's coaches judged accessories to "negligent homicide,” as some bloggers thought would be appropriate for those who may have contributed to Dennis' mindset? The number of Witness youths finding themselves in Dennis' predicament is proportionate or less to those student victims of sports.
Dennis was 14. In just 4 years he'd be eligible for the military. For every youngster who dies via refusing transfusion, there must be 10,000 who die as combatants. Jehovah's Witnesses don't go to war. So not only their 10,000 don't die, but there are 10,000 others of all faiths who don't die because there are no JW combatants to kill them. Does anyone think dying in one of the world's never-ending skirmishes is more noble than dying in process of observing one's religious conscience? If all persons refused transfusions, as Jehovah’s Witnesses do, and all persons refused to take part in war, as Jehovah’s Witnesses do, this would be on balance a far safer world.
Look, death of any youngster in such circumstances pushes a lot of emotional buttons. I understand that. But the hard fact is that most of those voicing strong opinions now were nowhere to be found during the first ten years of Dennis' difficult life. Nor did they lend any support to the aunt generous enough to assume raising the boy after that. Nor, had this crisis resolved itself in any other way, would they take any interest in his subsequent life. The ones who should speak for Dennis are those who knew and shared in his convictions
But one also must address the assumption, never challenged in the media, that rejecting a transfusion is tantamount to suicide. (The judge stated that "I don't think Dennis is trying to commit suicide. This isn't something Dennis just came upon, and he believes with the transfusion he would be unclean and unworthy.") How often does one read the noun “blood transfusion” not proceeded by the adjective “life-saving?” The facts suggest the label is not especially fitting.
For example, Surgeon Bruce Spiess addresses the Australian and New Zealand College of Anesthetists a few months ago, and declares blood transfusions have hurt more people than they've helped. Transfusions, he observes, are "almost a religion" because physicians practice them without solid evidence that they help.
We all know that blood is a foreign tissue and we all know that the body tries to reject foreign tissue, even when the types match.
Another study concludes that the chemical which permits transfused blood to transfer oxygen begins to break down within hours of storage, yet in the U.S blood is stored up to 42 days.
Here’s another one which concludes transfusion triples the risk of kidney impairment, strokes, and heart attacks. Remember what happened to Merck when it was established their drug Vioxx caused similar harm?
Jehovah's Witnesses steadfastly refuse blood transfusions (for religious reasons, not medical) and have created hundreds of Hospital Liaison Committees composed of members who interact with local hospitals and doctors. As a result, some in the medical field have pioneered bloodless techniques. By eliminating the risk of foreign tissue, human error, and blood-borne diseases, these new techniques offer a safety margin that conventional blood transfusions do not. The film Knocking states there are over 140 medical centers in North America that offer some form of bloodless surgical techniques. Might the day come, or is it even here already, when the number of lives saved through such medicine will outnumber those lost by a few members of a relatively tiny religious group that stuck to its principles amidst much opposition?
And if Dennis’ death is seen in that light, it is not in vain, even in a non-JW context. He should not be remembered as some deluded kid. He deserves better.
This video is well done and has been recognized favorably at some film festivals. Leaders in the medical field are interviewed. It is food for thought.
*After this post was written I came across two blogs by persons who actually knew people involved. Here and here. They both put a different light on matters. My post states that Dennis would likely have survived (70%/5 yrs) with a "regimen which included transfusions." If these two new sources are accurate (I suspect they are as they are the only writings that do any more than rehash and react to the newspaper report) it is the regimen that would have helped him, not the blood transfusions, which would have bought the lad only a few days of life. The treatment that would have been useful was stem cell replacement, which is said to be the most single expensive therapy in medicine (hundreds of thousands of dollars per treatment) and is out of the question for many patients on that count alone.
I also tend to believe these two new posts because I have seen this type of thing many times before. The reporter writes in the same emotional state as everyone else, and in the process omits key details that change the picture substantially.
One of the blogs (by a friend of Dennis) says this:
A related side note: I have read twenty years of the New England Journal of Medicine's articles on what he had. In the list of treatments recomended, Blood transfusion was not mentioned. The only reason they recommended it was to try to buy more time for the blood thickening drugs to bring the levels up so he could accept the continuation of chemotherapy. Also, they got to it too late. He'd already had leukemia for a long time and nothing could save him; the only thing a transfusion could do was extend his misery a couple years at most.
The other (by a med student who spoke to some involved) says this:
The treatment denied by the judge was not the stem cell transplant. It was a blood transfusion. Why is this distinction important? Stem cell transplants are the single most expensive procedure in medicine (hundreds of thousands of dollars just to do the procedure). We do them (and many health insurers cover them) because they work, but not all patients facing leukemia choose to be transplanted. Some cannot afford it. Some do not want to go through the pain of the procedure. Others (like this patient) have different reasons. If after providing all of the information, the patient does not consent to a procedure, the medical establishment usually respects this decision. Keep in mind that the legal decision here was related to the blood transfusion which could keep the patient alive for several days, not the stem cell transplant, which has 70% survival at 5 years as reported in the media. It's not as simple as a 750 word article would have you believe. (Although the Seattle PI wrote a good story overall.)