CARLISLE – Officials at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center said they will reach out to midstate Jehovah’s Witnesses over religious concerns about a proposed trial of an experimental blood substitute.
The issue arose yesterday as Dr. Robert A. Cherry, the center’s chief of trauma and critical care, briefed Cumberland County commissioners on the plan to give PolyHeme to critically injured accident victims.
Hershey Medical Center is considering participating in a nationwide test of the blood substitute.
PolyHeme would be carried aboard the center’s Life Lion helicopters and ambulances to provide emergency transfusions.
Cherry no sooner finished his briefing than Rebekah Grifford of Mechanicsburg, a Jehovah’s Witness and former operating room nurse, voiced concern about how the study could affect her fellow parishioners.
“There are several hundred Jehovah’s Witnesses in Cumberland County, all of whom I feel certain would refuse this type of transfusion,” Grifford said.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible prohibits the transfusion of blood.
The issue surrounding PolyHeme is of interest to the Christian denomination, which has nearly 6.5 million members worldwide and more than 35,500 in Pennsylvania.
Doug Menner, associate director of hospital information services for the church’s national headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y., said church leaders will allow members to make their own decisions regarding use of PolyHeme.
The substitute’s maker, Northfield Laboratories Inc., has broached the matter with church officials, Menner said.
Grifford said she is concerned that critically injured and unconscious Jehovah’s Witnesses could inadvertently receive unwanted transfusions of PolyHeme because medical personnel would not know their religion.
She panned a proposal to have Witnesses, or others who don’t want PolyHeme transfusions, to wear special wristbands. “It seems unreasonable that several hundred people should have to run around with these wristbands all the time,” she said.
Her fellow congregants do carry “medical directive cards” describing what treatment they will or won’t accept, she said, but those can be lost in accidents.
Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t oppose emergency transfusions with the saline solution currently used by ambulance personnel to address massive blood loss.
On Scriptural grounds, however, they won’t accept transfusions of whole blood, red or white blood cells, platelets or plasma. They base that ban on passages from Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Acts that they believe constitute a command from God to “keep abstaining from … blood.”
PolyHeme is made from human blood. Promoters say that unlike saline solutions, it carries life-giving oxygen to the body’s organs, and it can be given to anyone, regardless of blood type.
Cherry said medical center officials will meet with midstate Jehovah’s Witness leaders to discuss the PolyHeme trial.
More than 300 patients, including at least one Jehovah’s Witness, have been involved in testing PolyHeme so far, Cherry said.
He also suggested that Jehovah’s Witnesses may want to consider wearing their medical directive cards around their necks or display them in some other way so they are conspicuous to emergency medical personnel.
Grifford said many decisions remain as to how Witnesses will handle the issue. “I think we’re still learning what this product is,” she said.
So far, 16 hospitals across the country have joined the PolyHeme study. The intent is to involve 25 hospitals and to give the substitute to 720 patients nationally.
A 1996 federal law allows such studies to be conducted on patients who are unconscious and unable to give consent. Hershey Medical Center must inform the public before participating in any such test.
Medical center officials briefed Perry County commissioners on the study on Monday.
They have set public sessions with Lancaster County commissioners at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 25 and with Lebanon County commissioners at 10 a.m. Jan. 27.
Public meetings also will be scheduled with commissioners in Dauphin and Schuylkill counties.
The local PolyHeme study could begin in March.