Story by: Ellen Samek
Leigh Manzer spent 33 years living in fear of hospitals. His fear came from the thought of ever needing a blood transfusion. The 38-year-old grew up as a devout Jehovah’s Witness in Perth-Andover, N.B.
Manzer never celebrated Christmas or his birthday. He spent hours knocking on doors every Saturday wearing a stuffy suit to warn the masses of Armageddon. He also carried around a medical directive card in his wallet stating that he couldn’t get a blood transfusion, ever.
“From a young age we’re taught it’s against God’s law to receive or donate blood,” Manzer says. “If you disobey and receive a blood transfusion you’re giving up your chance at eternal life on Earth. It’s the worst thing you can do.”
Literal interpretation of Bible verses has led to JW’s refusal of blood transfusions. Blood transfusions are even comparable to cannibalism in the religion. The Watchtower Society, the body that governs JWs, created the rule in 1945.
Manzer, who was baptized at 15, renewed the card every year. He left the faith a year ago, this led him to be officially kicked out too. He says his parents, family and friends shun him as a result. Now, Manzer shares his experience with the “ex-JW” community on Facebook and Twitter.
“When you leave you’re told your life will fail. I want to help people getting out,” he says. “They [the religion] already took my parents and my little sister away. What else could they take from me? They have no power over me anymore.”
Others ex-JWs like Manzer are starting to come forward online to expose what they believe to be a dangerous cult and share their experiences of leaving and losing faith.
Susan Gaskin is one of those people.
Gaskin left the religion in 2000 after being shunned for dating after a divorce. JW’s aren’t allowed to remarry after divorce unless two other JWs witness adultery taking place.
Today, she’s the administrator of a number of Facebook groups for ex-JWs like Ex-JW Support Network Canada. Ex-JWs use these groups as an outlet to discuss their journey towards disbelief and how it’s affecting their lives.
“A lot of the posts lately are videos of members confronting JW information carts on street corners and questioning them about their beliefs,” she says.
Gaskin also runs a YouTube channel. In her videos she discusses the inconsistencies of JW beliefs and rules. Gaskin says that one of the rules JWs are most inconsistent on is blood transfusions.
“It’s so idiotic,” Gaskin says. “Now JWs can accept what they call ‘blood fractions.’ Technically it’s still blood. But if you take a whole blood transfusion to save your life they [the religion’s elders] will tell you that you kicked yourself out by getting one.”
Gaskin says it’s inconsistent beliefs like these that are causing people to wake-up and leave. Her two Facebook groups combined have more than 1000 members.
“People die because of these beliefs, many people have died, even recently,” she says. In 2016, a 26-year-old Quebec woman and JW, Éloïse Dupuis, died in childbirth because she didn’t receive a life-saving blood transfusion.
Sometimes Manzer will catch himself humming a catchy JW hymn that gets stuck in his head or remember the people he knew like 15-year-old Joshua Walker. In 1994, Walker, with his parents’ support, refused blood transfusions to treat leukemia. A legal battle with the a New Brunswick hospital permitted Walker to make this decision as a minor. He eventually died.
“It’s situations with minors that can get messy,” says Kerry Bowman, a professor of bioethics at the University of Toronto.
Bowman says JWs are just like anyone else and he has never experienced any problems with them during his time as a clinical ethicist in Toronto.
Manzer understands where they’re are coming from, but he’s still skeptical.
“When a Witness is sick, a hospital liaison committee (HCL) goes to the hospital to be by your side to give you spiritual strength,” Manzer says. “They say it’s to give you counsel but in reality, they’re just there to make sure you don’t give in out of fear and get a blood transfusion.”
The JW’s official website defines the HLCs as community ministers who communicate between physicians and Witnesses to ensure there is an understanding of faith-appropriate care. You don’t need a medical background to join a committee. Bowman says he’s never had a negative experience with HLCs during his career. He also says he avoids being in the room during religious conversations.
Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses have more options when it comes to avoiding blood transfusions. Patient blood management clinics have sprung up in hospitals around the world. Known as “bloodless medicine,” these clinics strive to use pre-operative, anaesthetic and surgical techniques on a case-by-case basis to avoid giving patients unnecessary blood transfusions. Some hospitals in the United States, like Penn Medicine provide completely “transfusion-free” care.
Jonathan Ursuliak, a media relations representative for Jehovah’s Witnesses Canada welcomes more options. “We aren’t opposed to receiving medical treatment we just don’t accept blood transfusions,” he says.
In Canada, patient blood management is a different story. Dr. Katerina Pavenski, head of transfusion medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto finds the terms “bloodless” and “transfusion-free” misleading.
“There is no guarantee that a patient who comes to our centre won’t need a transfusion. We do everything we can to ensure no unnecessary transfusions take place, whether or not the patient is a Jehovah’s Witness,” she says.
Pavenski looks for things like anemia or a vitamin B12 deficiencies when treating patients. By treating conditions like these successfully before a procedure, the likelihood of needing a blood transfusion reduced.
Although she says things do work out a lot of the time, sometimes, they just don’t.
“In emergencies it is inordinately difficult to come up with options,” Pavenski says. “It is very emotional to see a patient bleeding to death when you are totally in the power to fix it and yet the patient or the family may not want it.”
Manzer is happy there are ways to prevent the deaths of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but says avoiding transfusions is still risky.
“JW parents will let their kids die on the table if they need a blood transfusion,” he says. “They need an alternative in case bloodless medicine doesn’t work.”
Manzer thinks back to Joshua Walker and other kids who died because they didn’t receive blood transfusions. They are memorialized in a 1995 issue of Awake!, a Jehovah’s Witness magazine.
The headline of the story on Walker’s death is: “Joshua’s Faith: A Victory for Children’s Rights.”
“Praising children for giving up their lives is sickening to me. It’s glorifying the death of children,” says Manzer who is the father of two teenage boys. His sons have also left the faith. “I didn’t ever want to choose to die when I was a kid. It was hard dealing with that as a young person and I never want my sons to go through that.”
When asked about Awake! Ursuliak insisted that Jehovah’s Witnesses “do not in any way glorify the deaths of children.”
Today, Manzer sees himself as a free-man, no longer bound to a religion he doesn’t believe in. He’s focused on making up for lost time and is looking forward to celebrating his second Christmas complete with blow-up Santas on the front lawn and bright coloured sweaters. He’s going to vote in the upcoming Evansburg, A.B. municipal election and he laid a wreath of poppies for his grandfather on Remembrance Day—all things he couldn’t as a JW.
He also hopes to donate blood soon, something that was just as forbidden to him as blood transfusions.
“It’s something really important to me that’s on my bucket list,” says Manzer. “Doing it means I could help save a life and give someone the chance to keep living.”