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Going "Bloodless" in Surgery: A Religious Group Shakes Up Medicine

Master Sgt. Kimberly A. Yearyean-Siers
U.S. Air Force

This story originally aired on December 9, 2017.  

Jeffrey Heckman, from Snohomish, WA, will be the first to tell you life is unpredictable.

In the summer of 2015, while vacationing on San Juan Island with friends and family, Jeff was studying his Bible when, all of a sudden, an intense and unfamiliar pain struck him.  The culprit was an aortic dissection - a tear in the large vein branching off from the heart.  He was airlifted to Providence Medical Center, where renowned surgeon, Dr. James Brevig, prepared to conduct what would be a meticulous 10-hour surgery.  

What happened to Jeff is rare; there are fewer than 20,000 aortic dissections in the United States per year.  In each case, the odds aren’t great.  Eighty percent of patients never make it to the hospital alive.  If you are among the surviving 20 percent, you still have to get through open heart surgery.  

Jeff was lucky to be alive.  But there was one catch: He could not accept a blood transfusion under any circumstances.   

In this story, we hear from Jeffrey Heckman what happens when religion and medicine meet in the veins.  From Dr. Brevig, we hear how he feels medical professionals ought to handle situations when one of their most-used lifesaving tools is taken off the table.

Bloodless Surgery

Bloodless surgical techniques are in fairly wide use. They range from using special anesthesia methods to lower blood pressure, to a “harmonic scalpel,” which cuts and simultaneously cauterizes tissue to minimize bleeding.

Many healthcare providers will also use a special device, called a cell salvage or “cell saver” machine. The machine collects any lost blood and cleans it, so that it can be returned to the patient’s body.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.