From a Slow Death to a Happy Life

AS TOLD BY DIAMÁNTI DATSERIS

‘I live a life with an expiration date.’ That thought kept running through my mind as I lay in a hospital bed with units of blood slowly dripping into my veins. For more than 20 years, I had been told that this was the only way I could keep living—if indeed this could be called living.

SOON after my birth in 1969 in Ierápetra, on the Greek island of Crete, my parents received ominous news. The doctors said that their baby girl had beta-thalassemia, or Cooley’s anemia. Beta-thalassemia major is a severe inherited blood disease, which occurs most frequently among people of Greek, Italian, Middle Eastern, Southern Asian, or African ancestry.

As the doctors explained to my parents, when one has this condition, the red cells of the body do not produce enough hemoglobin, the protein that transports oxygen to the cells. As a result, my cells get insufficient oxygen. Red cells remain in my bloodstream for only a short time because my liver and spleen destroy and remove them. These organs are responsible for the destruction of abnormal or worn-out red cells.

My parents were told that the only known treatment for thalassemia was regular blood transfusions and the removal of the accumulated iron. As the doctors explained, however, treatment by transfusion is accompanied by the ongoing accumulation of iron in the heart and the liver, and this can be fatal. Transfusion—the treatment that prevents death in patients in their first ten years of life—usually provides the major component of the iron poisoning that is so deadly later on. Chronically transfused thalassemia patients, like me, usually die of a cardiac disorder before 30 years of age.

Life With an “Expiration Date”

From my early childhood, death loomed heavily over me. Words do not suffice to describe how difficult it is to live with such a dire prospect. I had no plans for the future and no dreams of a normal adult life. My thalassemia, I felt, was like a time bomb waiting to go off.

My parents’ concern for my health made them very cautious. I was brought up with an unending list of “don’ts” and other rules: “Don’t run!” “Don’t get excited!” “Be careful!”

My situation made my Greek Orthodox mother extremely religious. She sincerely sought help from religious icons. To improve my condition, she would take me to faraway monasteries with a reputation for faith healing and would supply me with various charms and amulets. Much money was spent on such agencies—but to no avail.

I believed in and loved God, although I did not know how to worship him. When in despair, I would tearfully pray: “God, if you really exist and love me, please help me.”

 A Desperate Quest for Comfort

As I grew up, my health deteriorated rapidly, largely because of the excess iron in my blood. As part of my treatment, I used a device that reduces blood iron. Every night I had to insert a needle just underneath the skin in my abdomen to let an iron chelator trickle into my body all night long. Every night I endured the same torturous ritual. Often during those sleepless nights, I wanted to die. I felt that God had ignored my pleas for help.

At the age of 16, I started associating with a group of youngsters who were immersed in heavy metal music. In a desperate quest for comfort, I found that music glorifying brutality, wanton violence, and Satanism provided a measure of escape. After all, since evil was everywhere around me, I agreed with the idea that an evil higher power controlled the universe. But soon the consequences of drugs and Satanism became evident. My associates were always on the run from the police.

My endless blood transfusions had left their mark on my body. Excess iron put black circles under my eyes and made my skin turn yellow. My appearance was not helped by my dress—the black clothes and leather jacket, adorned with hobnails and skulls, which were characteristic of the people I was associating with. Happily, I never took drugs.

As I continued listening to heavy metal music with its emphasis on death, drugs, demons, spiritism, and blood, I felt that Satan had me entangled. At night I was depressed and often wept. It was at this low point in my life that a beam of hope began to shine.

My Life Takes a Turn

One day, when I was 20 years old, a friend gave me a book that she had obtained from Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was entitled The Bible—God’s Word or Man’s? * She was not really interested in the book, but when I browsed through its pages, I was impressed. It clearly showed that Bible principles can improve a person’s life. I was also impressed to learn about the persecution of the early Christians and their willingness to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs. When I finished reading the book, I wanted to share these things with others. It was then that I met Manolis, a man who knew about Jehovah and the message of the Bible because some of his relatives were Jehovah’s Witnesses. He took me to the local meeting place of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and during the summer of 1990, I started studying the Bible with them.

Through my Bible study, I learned that our Creator truly cares for us and that he is not responsible for the sickness and pain that afflict many of us. (1 Peter 5:7) I learned that it was Satan who introduced sin and death into this world and that Jehovah will soon undo the works of Satan by removing this old system and replacing it with a perfect new world. (Hebrews 2:14) Under paradisaic conditions, God-fearing people will be restored to human perfection. Then, no one will say, “I am sick.”—Isaiah 33:24.

At the same time, I learned that the Bible tells us to ‘abstain from blood.’ (Acts 15:20, 29; Genesis 9:4) As my conscience started  to be molded and trained by the lofty standards and principles of the Bible, I was motivated to make a personal decision regarding blood transfusions. I decided that I would not accept them anymore.

For more than 20 years, I had been led to believe that the only way I could keep alive was to receive regular blood transfusions. Would I by obeying the Bible’s command be signing my own death warrant? What would my parents think of my rejection of blood? Would my doctors and the other medical staff try to pressure me?

Making Critical Decisions

Through fervent prayer I threw all my anxieties on Jehovah. (Psalm 55:22) I also decided to pursue other medical solutions. After much study, I found out that I could possibly replace blood transfusions with a carefully selected diet rich in iron and vitamins. Above all else, I was determined to conform to God’s law as it is expressed in the Bible.

Understandably, my parents were quite upset. Since my infancy they had done their best to keep me alive, and here I was saying no to blood transfusions! Eventually, though, they said that they would respect my personal decision in the matter.

I then explained my religious stand to the medical staff at the hospital, also informing them that I would vigorously pursue alternative methods to blood transfusion. The doctors reluctantly agreed to abide by my wishes.

While receiving blood transfusions in the past, I had made friends with some other thalassemic youngsters. Now they were puzzled over my stand on blood. One of them sarcastically told me that soon I would “be carried away by four”—a Greek expression meaning that I would die. Sadly, she later was among five patients who died as a result of being transfused with contaminated blood!

Since August 1991, I have not had a blood transfusion. Contrary to all predictions, I am alive and reasonably well. Following a diet rich in vitamins and iron, I have been able to maintain adequate health, despite occasional complications and chronic limitations caused by my thalassemia.

Best of all, however, I have a life with purpose, a life enriched by an intimate relationship with my Creator, Jehovah God. In July of 1992, I symbolized my dedication to Jehovah by water baptism. Manolis, that cherished friend who brought me in contact with the vital support of the Christian congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, was baptized on that same day. About 18 months later, we were married. Later, I had the joy of seeing my mother and my sister become baptized servants of Jehovah. My father’s opinion of Jehovah’s Witnesses has changed, and he occasionally attends congregation meetings.

I have learned that although death is an enemy, it is not an enemy to be feared. (Psalm 23:4) Whether we live or die, it is to Jehovah. Our life is in his hands. (Romans 14:8) I will always be thankful to him for saving me from a life with only the prospect of a slow death. Indeed, he has led me to the hope of eternal life!—Revelation 21:1-4.

[Footnote]

^ par. 18 Published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.

[Picture on page 21]

I was desperately searching for comfort

[Picture on page 22]

With my husband, Manolis