Sect's Transfusion Ban Puts Believer at Risk

Washington Post/January 21, 1999
By William Branigin

In a Los Angeles hospital, the swollen, yellowish and heavily sedated body of Rosario Rios Villagomez lies attached to a ventilator in the intensive care unit. She is in critical condition. Intravenous drips deliver antibiotics to fight the septic shock that, along with multiple organ failure, grew out of a treatable but neglected malady: gallstones.

As devout members of Jehovah's Witnesses, the 51-year-old woman and her husband, both Bolivians who formerly lived in Northern Virginia, refused a blood transfusion doctors recommended when she was admitted to L.A.'s Martin Luther King Hospital last month. A cousin of Villagomez in Bethesda tried to intervene, but found she was powerless to persuade doctors to perform the procedure in the face of religious objections.

Thus has a Bolivian immigrant family come to embody a conflict that has dogged the evangelical Christian sect, a clash between a deeply held religious belief and a widely used technique of modern medicine. While Villagomez's husband insists on sticking to the tenets of the couple's faith, her cousin is pressing a challenge to the sect's long-standing policy against any consumption of blood, which disciples interpret to include various types of blood transfusions.

Villagomez, who came to the United States in 1991, is among dozens of people whom critics describe as "victims" of the sect's policy against blood transfusions. The Brooklyn-based Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, as the religious group is officially known, says the prohibition is based on "Biblical law" and that transfusions are not only spiritually harmful but physically risky. The society, which claims more than 5 million devotees worldwide and nearly 1 million in the United States, argues that thousands of people contract such illnesses as AIDS, hepatitis and syphilis from "contaminated blood."

"If she had had the blood transfusion in the first two or three days, she would have been home by now," said Villagomez's cousin, Myriam Collyns, who works for the International Monetary Fund here. During a trip to Los Angeles to visit her relative, she said doctors told her that Villagomez has suffered "irreversible" lung damage and that "if she comes out of this, she might have to live with the help of a ventilator for the rest of her life."

In a letter to Milton G. Henschel, president of the Watchtower Society, Collyns said Villagomez became seriously ill Dec. 16 and suffered kidney failure the next day, but that her husband did not take her to the hospital. Instead, he asked her to sign an affidavit in which she refused any medical treatment involving blood or blood products, Collyns said. It was not until Dec. 18, when her cousin was "barely breathing," that the husband, Freddy Villagomez, called paramedics, Collyns said.

The hospital requires doctors to respect the patient's wishes in such cases, and Villagomez was in no position to change her decision because she had become unconscious.

"Ironically, under the law, only her husband, who had neglected her treatment earlier, could reverse her affidavit and consent to the treatment that could save her life," Collyns wrote to Henschel. "However, he is a strong and faithful disciple of yours."

"I grew up with Rosario, and every day I admired her generosity to others," she added. "The God she has searched for is a God of love, care, generosity and forgiveness. However, in your organization, she found a God of wrath and vengeance. Did she want her life to end like this?"

In reply, Collyns received an unsigned letter from the society's Hospital Information Services. It stressed that Jehovah's Witnesses "accept surgery" and said such procedures as gall bladder operations are routinely done these days without blood transfusions. It said Villagomez is currently receiving a synthetic medical product that stimulates red blood cell production.

"So it is not as if the belief of Jehovah's Witnesses about not ingesting blood is something that compromises their health and denies them lifesaving treatments," the letter said.

Collyns said, however, that doctors told her the alternative treatment cited in the letter, although helpful, was insufficient to save her cousin's lungs.

Freddy Villagomez, 42, said he delayed taking his wife to the hospital because she was "afraid of surgery" -- not for religious reasons, but because of bad experiences with operations years ago in Bolivia. "My wife never realized it was that serious," he said. "Sometimes, as people, we make mistakes. . . . It's my wife's wish and my wish for her to live, but we also want to obey Jehovah. I am just supporting my wife while she is not conscious. I have to make sure her wishes are respected."

The couple met in Northern Virginia, where Freddy Villagomez lived for 17 years after immigrating from Bolivia. Shortly after their marriage in Fairfax four years ago, they moved to Los Angeles, where Villagomez set up a home repair business.

James N. Pellechia, a spokesman for the Watchtower Society, said the sect's beliefs played no role in the delay before Villagomez was taken to the hospital. The long-standing prohibition against blood transfusions, he added, is based on Biblical passages, such as one from Acts that reads: "Abstain from . . . fornication and from what is strangled and from blood."

However, critics of the ban say the society can modify its policies if it wants to. An international group, Watchtower Victims Memorial, notes that the sect previously had banned organ transplants, describing them as "cannibalism" in Watchtower literature, but now allows them.

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