Lisa Green was to refuse a blood transfusion.
This I had memorized as my bottom line. When the resident asked me if I could undergo surgery right away, I was supposed to defer to my mom, who didn’t want me to have a blood transfusion. Here we were, two Jehovah’s Witnesses, mother and daughter—one Christian, one Hindu; one Latina, one Indian; one 29, one 23. We were just outside the door to the “operating theater,” in theater roles ourselves to help train first-year residents and prepare them for various scenarios.
As far as I know, I have never actually had a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness. So woefully under-informed, here I was having the persona of one cast upon me, in the form of a single fact: it is against their religion to accept blood transfusions. Once blood has left a body, it cannot be put back into another one. I wondered what such a rule was rooted in; how ancient text allows one to breathe recycled air but not receive recycled blood. Perhaps the residents, doctors-in-training, wondered that too. In any case, these residents were here to face an unknown scenario, and an unknown patient: me.
I was Lisa Green, 14, at home with my babysitter when, BAM! –there were knives in my belly, which had been hurting for weeks. I clutched my middle desperately. There was something there, a monster inside me. My babysitter rushed me to the emergency room. “A 10 cm ovarian mass,” the doctors proclaimed. They wanted to do surgery, cut out the mass, but they had to wait for my mom. My mom took ages, it seemed, as they wrote my name and some numbers on the board.
My mom arrived. She was told about the situation. The resident (our scenario’s trainee) arrived. He began to ask me questions.
“We’ll need to do surgery right now to remove the mass, otherwise the situation will get more serious. Is that okay?”
I was in a hospital gown, lying on a bed, a fake IV line taped onto my arm, a blood-oxygen monitor on my forefinger, and a screen beeping my pre-ordained, damning vital signs. I felt ensconced in vulnerability. I could feel the weight of a mass upon me even though I was blessed, in real life, to not be Lisa Green and not be living the scenario. While I’ve never been a good actor, I’ve always been an emotional sieve, left with the gritty residue of emotions from movies or books even if not outwardly displaying them. At this moment, I didn’t look scared, and there was no reason for me to be actually nervous or worried about my health—yet suddenly I really felt that way. When I turned to my purported mom to ask her—“mom, do YOU think surgery is okay?” I actually felt relief in transferring the burden of the decision to her.
“No, we’re Jehovah’s Witnesses—we don’t do blood transfusion.”
The resident’s face settled into a test-taking mode. You could see his cogs working, remembering the details of the protocol regarding Jehovah’s witnesses learned during their training. Ask this; say this; it’s legal to do this. He was supposed to tell my mom that they could not expect the surgery to be successful if done bloodless; that the alternative, with no surgery, was that I would die; that if she really refused all blood transfusion, a last resort could be to set up a system to immediately recycle the blood I myself lost during surgery in a circuit outside my body, so that it could be as if it never left my body at all…maybe she would be okay with that? Maybe I would?
The resident did a good job. He asked all the right questions while my “mom” pushed back. He kept trying to engage me directly in the decision-making, but like the 14-year-old I was instructed to be, I kept deferring to my mom. At some point, as we mounted our defense of our beliefs, my mom and I, the repetition of “no” made me begin to feel I actually believed it. The inner, real, me was shocked at how much the outer me could be in the shoes of this new persona. Why should I have to get a blood transfusion if I didn’t want to? How could I face my religious community if I did? How could this doctor expect me to change? My mom to change after 40 years of thinking a certain way?
I think we ended somewhere nebulous, my fate still hanging in the balance, when suddenly the resident and my “mom” started smiling uncontrollably at an awkward moment in the elaborate play-acting of their back-and-forth. The tension we had all constructed broke. Show’s over, we all said, and they went to the other room to debrief with the other residents who had been watching the scene on a TV.
I removed the gown and the taped IV catheter. I looked up at the whiteboard where Lisa Green’s biological information had been written. I was struck with a wave of relief that I wasn’t her, but also a wave of shame that I, on hearing the initial details of her case, had thought that the idea of religion prohibiting a life-saving procedure was hogwash. When I became the patient, I knew that I was more than a stereotype. I was more than just 14-year-old Lisa Green, Jehovah’s Witness; near-death. This was a stereotype-case, but in living through it as the stereotype, I realized that no stereotype is just that, and that the patient is not just in the details given. We are not who we are not, of course. But I think it’s beneficial to imagine ourselves as such, and what might happen to us in those situations.
I left that scenario struck with the realization of how trapped we are in our own perspectives—and yet, how easy it is to peer through windows into others’ lives, if we allow ourselves that awkwardness.