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Quality Alternatives to Transfusion

Quality Alternatives to Transfusion

Quality Alternatives to Transfusion

You might feel, ‘Transfusions are hazardous, but are there any high-quality alternatives?’ A good question, and note the word “quality.”

Everyone, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, wants effective medical care of high quality. Dr. Grant E. Steffen noted two key elements: “Quality medical care is the capacity of the elements of that care to achieve legitimate medical and nonmedical goals.” (The Journal of the American Medical Association, July 1, 1988) “Nonmedical goals” would include not violating the ethics or Bible-based conscience of the patient.—Acts 15:28, 29.

Are there legitimate and effective ways to manage serious medical problems without using blood? Happily, the answer is yes.

Though most surgeons have claimed that they gave blood only when absolutely necessary, after the AIDS epidemic arose their use of blood dropped rapidly. An editorial in Mayo Clinic Proceedings (September 1988) said that “one of the few benefits of the epidemic” was that it “resulted in various strategies on the part of patients and physicians to avoid blood transfusion.” A blood-bank official explains: “What has changed is the intensity of the message, the receptivity of clinicians to the message (because of an increased perception of risks), and the demand for consideration of alternatives.”—Transfusion Medicine Reviews, October 1989.

Note, there are alternatives! This becomes understandable when we review why blood is transfused.

The hemoglobin in the red cells carries oxygen needed for good health and life. So if a person has lost a lot of blood, it might seem logical just to replace it. Normally you have about 14 or 15 grams of hemoglobin in every 100 cubic centimeters of blood. (Another measure of the concentration is hematocrit, which is commonly about 45 percent.) The accepted “rule” was to transfuse a patient before surgery if his hemoglobin was below 10 (or 30 percent hematocrit). The Swiss journal Vox Sanguinis (March 1987) reported that “65% of [anesthesiologists] required patients to have a preoperative hemoglobin of 10 gm/dl for elective surgery.”

But at a 1988 conference on blood transfusion, Professor Howard L. Zauder asked, “How Did We Get a ‘Magic Number’?” He stated clearly: “The etiology of the requirement that a patient have 10 grams of hemoglobin (Hgb) prior to receiving an anesthetic is cloaked in tradition, shrouded in obscurity, and unsubstantiated by clinical or experimental evidence.” Imagine the many thousands of patients whose transfusions were triggered by an ‘obscure, unsubstantiated’ requirement!

Some might wonder, ‘Why is a hemoglobin level of 14 normal if you can get by on much less?’ Well, you thus have considerable reserve oxygen-carrying capacity so that you are ready for exercise or heavy work. Studies of anemic patients even reveal that “it is difficult to detect a deficit in work capacity with hemoglobin concentrations as low as 7 g/dl. Others have found evidence of only moderately impaired function.”—Contemporary Transfusion Practice, 1987.

While adults accommodate a low hemoglobin level, what of children? Dr. James A. Stockman III says: “With few exceptions, infants born prematurely will experience a decline in hemoglobin in the first one to three months . . . The indications for transfusion in the nursery setting are not well defined. Indeed, many infants seem to tolerate remarkably low levels of hemoglobin concentration with no apparent clinical difficulties.”—Pediatric Clinics of North America, February 1986.

Such information does not mean that nothing need be done when a person loses a lot of blood in an accident or during surgery. If the loss is rapid and great, a person’s blood pressure drops, and he may go into shock. What is primarily needed is that the bleeding be stopped and the volume in his system be restored. That will serve to prevent shock and keep the remaining red cells and other components in circulation.

Volume replacement can be accomplished without using whole blood or blood plasma. * Various nonblood fluids are effective volume expanders. The simplest is saline (salt) solution, which is both inexpensive and compatible with our blood. There are also fluids with special properties, such as dextran, Haemaccel, and lactated Ringer’s solution. Hetastarch (HES) is a newer volume expander, and “it can be safely recommended for those [burn] patients who object to blood products.” (Journal of Burn Care & Rehabilitation, January/February 1989) Such fluids have definite advantages. “Crystalloid solutions [such as normal saline and lactated Ringer’s solution], Dextran and HES are relatively nontoxic and inexpensive, readily available, can be stored at room temperature, require no compatibility testing and are free of the risk of transfusion-transmitted disease.”—Blood Transfusion Therapy—A Physician’s Handbook, 1989.

You may ask, though, ‘Why do nonblood replacement fluids work well, since I need red cells to get oxygen throughout my body?’ As mentioned, you have oxygen-carrying reserves. If you lose blood, marvelous compensatory mechanisms start up. Your heart pumps more blood with each beat. Since the lost blood was replaced with a suitable fluid, the now diluted blood flows more easily, even in the small vessels. As a result of chemical changes, more oxygen is released to the tissues. These adaptations are so effective that if only half of your red cells remain, oxygen delivery may be about 75 percent of normal. A patient at rest uses only 25 percent of the oxygen available in his blood. And most general anesthetics reduce the body’s need for oxygen.


Skilled physicians can help one who has lost blood and so has fewer red cells. Once volume is restored, doctors can administer oxygen at high concentration. This makes more of it available for the body and has often had remarkable results. British doctors used this with a woman who had lost so much blood that “her haemoglobin fell to 1.8 g/dlitre. She was successfully treated . . . [with] high inspired oxygen concentrations and transfusions of large volumes of gelatin solution [Haemaccel].” (Anaesthesia, January 1987) The report also says that others with acute blood loss have been successfully treated in hyperbaric oxygen chambers.

Physicians can also help their patients to form more red cells. How? By giving them iron-containing preparations (into muscles or veins), which can aid the body in making red cells three to four times faster than normal. Recently another help has become available. Your kidneys produce a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO), which stimulates bone marrow to form red cells. Now synthetic (recombinant) EPO is available. Doctors may give this to some anemic patients, thus helping them to form replacement red cells very quickly.

Even during surgery, skilled and conscientious surgeons and anesthesiologists can help by employing advanced blood-conservation methods. Meticulous operative technique, such as electrocautery to minimize bleeding, cannot be overstressed. Sometimes blood flowing into a wound can be aspirated, filtered, and directed back into circulation. *

Patients on a heart-lung machine primed with a nonblood fluid may benefit from the resulting hemodilution, fewer red cells being lost.

And there are other ways to help. Cooling a patient to lessen his oxygen needs during surgery. Hypotensive anesthesia. Therapy to improve coagulation. Desmopressin (DDAVP) to shorten bleeding time. Laser “scalpels.” You will see the list grow as physicians and concerned patients seek to avoid blood transfusions. We hope that you never lose a great amount of blood. But if you did, it is very likely that skilled doctors could manage your care without using blood transfusions, which have so many risks.


Many people today will not accept blood. For health reasons, they are requesting what Witnesses seek primarily on religious grounds: quality medical care employing alternative nonblood management. As we have noted, major surgery is still possible. If you have any lingering doubts, some other evidence from medical literature may dispel them.

The article “Quadruple Major Joint Replacement in Member of Jehovah’s Witnesses” (Orthopaedic Review, August 1986) told of an anemic patient with “advanced destruction in both knees and hips.” Iron dextran was employed before and after the staged surgery, which was successful. The British Journal of Anaesthesia (1982) reported on a 52-year-old Witness with a hemoglobin level under 10. With the use of hypotensive anesthesia to minimize blood loss, she had a total hip and shoulder replacement. A surgical team at the University of Arkansas (U.S.A.) also used this method in a hundred hip replacements on Witnesses, and all the patients recovered. The professor heading the department comments: “What we have learned from those (Witness) patients, we now apply to all our patients that we do total hips on.”

The conscience of some Witnesses permits them to accept organ transplants if done without blood. A report of 13 kidney transplants concluded: “The overall results suggest that renal transplantation can be safely and efficaciously applied to most Jehovah’s Witnesses.” (Transplantation, June 1988) Likewise, refusal of blood has not stood in the way even of successful heart transplants.

‘What about bloodless surgery of other types?’ you may wonder. Medical Hotline (April/May 1983) told of surgery on “Jehovah’s Witnesses who underwent major gynecological and obstetric operations [at Wayne State University, U.S.A.] without blood transfusions.” The newsletter reported: “There were no more deaths and complications than in women who had undergone similar operations with blood transfusions.” The newsletter then commented: “The results of this study may warrant a fresh look at the use of blood for all women undergoing obstetric and gynecological operations.”

At the hospital of Göttingen University (Germany), 30 patients who declined blood underwent general surgery. “No complications arose that could not also have arisen with patients who accept blood transfusions. . . . That recourse to a transfusion is not possible should not be overrated, and thus should not lead to refraining from an operation that is necessary and surgically justifiable.”—Risiko in der Chirurgie, 1987.

Even brain surgery without using blood has been done on numerous adults and children, for instance, at New York University Medical Center. In 1989 Dr. Joseph Ransohoff, head of neurosurgery, wrote: “It is very clear that in most instances avoidance of blood products can be achieved with minimal risk in patients who have religious tenets against the use of these products, particularly if surgery can be carried out expeditiously and with a relatively short operative period. Of considerable interest is the fact that I often forget that the patient is a Witness until at the time of discharge when they thank me for having respected their religious beliefs.”

Finally, can intricate heart and vascular surgery without blood be performed on adults and children? Dr. Denton A. Cooley was a pioneer in doing just that. As you can see in the medical article reprinted in the Appendix, on pages 27-9, based on an earlier analysis, Dr. Cooley’s conclusion was “that the risk of surgery in patients of the Jehovah’s Witness group has not been substantially higher than for others.” Now, after performing 1,106 of these operations, he writes: “In every instance my agreement or contract with the patient is maintained,” that is, to use no blood.

Surgeons have observed that good attitude is another factor with Jehovah’s Witnesses. “The attitude of these patients has been exemplary,” wrote Dr. Cooley in October 1989. “They do not have the fear of complications or even death that most patients have. They have a deep and abiding faith in their belief and in their God.”

This does not mean that they assert a right to die. They actively pursue quality care because they want to get well. They are convinced that obeying God’s law on blood is wise, which view has a positive influence in nonblood surgery.

Professor Dr. V. Schlosser, of the surgical hospital at the University of Freiburg (Germany), noted: “Among this group of patients, the incidence of bleeding during the perioperative period was not higher; the complications were, if anything, fewer. The special view of illness, typical of Jehovah’s Witnesses, had a positive influence in the perioperative process.”—Herz Kreislauf, August 1987.


^ par. 12 Witnesses do not accept transfusions of whole blood, red cells, white cells, platelets, or blood plasma. As to minor fractions, such as immune globulin, see The Watchtower of June 1, 1990, pages 30-1.

^ par. 17 The Watchtower of March 1, 1989, pages 30-1, considers Bible principles that bear on methods of blood salvage and on blood-circulating (extracorporeal) equipment.

[Box on page 13]

“We must conclude that currently there are many patients receiving blood components who have no chance for a benefit from transfusion (the blood is not needed) and yet still have a significant risk of undesired effect. No physician would knowingly expose a patient to a therapy that cannot help but might hurt, but that is exactly what occurs when blood is transfused unnecessarily.”—“Transfusion-Transmitted Viral Diseases,” 1987.

[Box on page 14]

“Some authors have stated that hemoglobin values as low as 2 to 2.5 gm./100ml. may be acceptable. . . . A healthy person may tolerate a 50 percent loss of red blood cell mass and be almost entirely asymptomatic if blood loss occurs over a period of time.”—“Techniques of Blood Transfusion,” 1982.

[Box on page 15]

“Older concepts about oxygen transport to tissues, wound healing, and ‘nutritional value’ of blood are being abandoned. Experience with patients who are Jehovah’s Witnesses demonstrates that severe anemia is well tolerated.”—“The Annals of Thoracic Surgery,” March 1989.

[Box on page 16]

Little children too? “Forty-eight pediatric open heart surgical procedures were performed with bloodless techniques regardless of surgical complexity.” The children were as small as 10.3 pounds (4.7 kg). “Because of consistent success in Jehovah’s Witnesses and the fact that blood transfusion carries a risk of serious complications, we are currently performing most of our pediatric cardiac operations without transfusion.”—“Circulation,” September 1984.

[Picture on page 15]

The heart-lung machine has been a great help in heart surgery on patients who do not want blood