Those of us who’ve followed the antivaccine movement for a while have noticed that antivaccine activist Del Bigtree, producer of the antivaccine propaganda movie disguised as a documentary VAXXED, host of The Highwire video podcast, and founder of ICAN, an antivaccine organization dedicated to suing government public health departments and the CDC for various perceived infractions against “informed consent” regarding vaccines, has apparently been ill. He missed two weeks of The Highwire and failed to show up at a scheduled demonstration at Rutgers University against COVID-19 vaccine mandate. This week, he came back, and for the last 25 minutes or so of his nearly three hour long Highwire, he discussed his recent health problems. It’s a lot to unpack, but most curiously, he said that he needed a transfusion, but did not want blood from any donor who had been vaccinated against COVID-19. I learned yesterday that Bigtree almost bled to death from internal hemorrhoids, and it didn’t help that he delayed getting a needed transfusion until he could fly to Cancun for “unvaccinated blood.”
Let’s start with a video that Bigtree posted to Facebook a week ago containing this rather vague and curious update:
Although I didn’t blog about it at the time, I was alarmed to learn that Bigtree had required a transfusion. (As much as I despise antivaxxers like Bigtree, I do not wish illness, harm or death on any of them and am actually relieved that Bigtree is on the mend, even if it means that he’ll be able to spread more COVID-19 and antivaccine misinformation.) In the video, he did look a bit wan, but not particularly ill (although he didn’t look well either), and appeared to be in a hotel room. In any event, Bigtree said that he had sought medical care because he had first noted difficulty walking across the room and that his medical care involved “blood transfusions” and a “minor surgery.” He also hastened to add that it was not poison. (Who thought it was?) Then, he emphasized:
I also want to say that there was no wrongdoing or foul play. It wasn’t poison involved. It was not COVID-19. At least the major issue was not caused by that, and I don’t have cancer.
I found it rather odd how Bigtree phrased this, saying that it wasn’t COVID-19, at least not the major issue, which really made me wonder if he did, in fact, have COVID-19. The information in his video was sparse, and I did speculate a bit as to what might have happened, but there really wasn’t a lot to go on. COVID-19? A bone marrow issue? (Maybe the “minor surgical procedure” was a bone marrow biopsy.) I couldn’t tell and gave up. I never would have predicted what really had caused Bigtree’s anemia. His story is worth deconstructing in detail, because it shows a number of things, including how much into quackery Bigtree is in addition to his antivaccine beliefs and also allows me to deconstruct his apparent belief that “COVID-19 vaccinated blood” is somehow more dangerous than a transfusion with “unvaccinated blood.”
Yesterday, Bigtree was back . I must confess that I didn’t watch all of this episode of Highwire. I had heard from someone who did that Del addressed his recent health issue that had kept him from doing his show for two weeks, and therefore fast forwarded to around the 2:25 mark (yes, nearly two and a half hours in!), which is where Bigtree finally addressed his health—but only after one last rant about Anthony Fauci’s emails and how Twitter had “censored” him for his conspiracy mongering about them.
There were some…wild responses to his video on Twitter. As an aside, I can’t help but note this one:
My interpretation is that, if this were actually true, then Del Bigtree kills puppies to save himself and this woman’s friend had killed a cat in order to live, but that’s just me. What happened? Bigtree related that his one year old puppy had just “randomly died” while he was going through all this, which had led him to wonder whether he had been poisoned. Hearing about the death of Bigtree’s puppy, regardless of the cause of death, greatly saddens me because, as regular readers know, I love puppies. I offer Del Bigtree my condolences for the death of his puppy, regardless of the cause.
More concerning, though, are Tweets like this one:
Here we go with the misinformation about accepting transfusion of blood products from people vaccinated against COVID-19. I sense a new antivax talking point being born, one that could endanger the lives of countless people who might need a transfusion but will be reluctant to accept it because of Bigtree’s promoting the idea that transfused blood from the vaccinated is dangerous.
So what happened?
Bigtree began by relating the story of how, a few weeks ago, he had felt weak and lightheaded. He noted that, at the time, whenever he stood up and moved around, his heart would race and he experienced a burning sensation in his chest and difficulty breathing, particularly when he tried to walk up a flight of stairs. This story sounded to me to be classic for postural hypotension; i.e., low blood pressure when you stand up. Postural hypotension a very frequent symptom associated with significant anemia. Of course, it could also be due to other causes, but either anemia or hypovolemia (low blood volume) are two of the causes right up at the top of the differential diagnosis, as is heart disease. Bigtree, not entirely inappropriately, wondered if he had COVID-19, although that would not be near the top of the differential diagnosis for his symptoms. In any event, he called his wife, who, it turned out, was in the car doing errands, and, oddly enough, a friend of theirs who was an ER doc in Austin was with her. That ER doc told Bigtree to go straight to the emergency room, which is what I would have told anyone calling me with similar symptoms. Bigtree expressed his reluctance, because he “likes to stick to vitamins and natural health,” but ultimately went.
The workup didn’t find any abnormalities in his EKG or chest X-ray, but his hemoglobin (Hgb) level was 8.5 g/dL, which is definitely low, normal for a man being generally around 13-16 g/dL, depending on the normal range of the specific lab. His COVID-19 test was negative. The doctors recommended admission for a workup (which is what I would have recommended too), but Bigtree refused, which was foolish of him. Instead, he resumed his normal travel schedule. A couple of weeks later (the timeline isn’t quite clear to me), he was feeling worse, at which point he noted that he had tested negative for COVID-19 but “tested positive for some random coronavirus.” Del being Del, he wondered if the test had been a false negative and called up some doctor friends of his to get started on the ivermectin protocol. (Ivermectin doesn’t work against COVID-19 and is, in fact, the new hydroxychloroquine, which doesn’t work either.) Unsurprisingly, Bigtree didn’t feel any better. So he went to a cardiologist.
Then, two weeks ago yesterday, Bigtree felt really weak at work, and he got a call from his cardiologist, who told him that his Hgb was now 4.8 g/dL. This was getting into the life-threateningly low range, particularly given that his Hgb had fallen 3.7 g/dL in a matter of a couple of weeks. That is substantial ongoing blood loss! Unsurprisingly, his cardiologist told him, in essence, “Get thee hence to the emergency room! NOW!” Even then, Bigtree wanted to do his show, but his staff talked him out of it.
I’ll cut to the chase. It turns out that Bigtree had some fairly large hemorrhoids and they had been bleeding. Indeed, they had been bleeding so much that he had become very anemic. Unsurprisingly, he expressed amazement that bleeding hemorrhoids could endanger his life, but any general surgeon—and I am a board-certified general surgeon, even though I now specialize in breast surgery—could have told Bigtree that blood loss from hemorrhoids can be substantial. It thus turns out that the surgical procedures that Bigtree underwent included a colonoscopy and an unnamed procedure to stop the bleeding from the hemorrhoids. Whether it was rubber band ligation or formal hemorrhoidectomy, I don’t know. Bigtree didn’t say. It doesn’t really matter. His bleeding was stopped, and he’s on the mend. Apparently there were some other abnormalities, as well, maybe an ulcer, but the hemorrhoids appear to have been the main culprit in Bigtree’s blood loss.
Now here’s where the disinformation comes in.
Bigtree also related how, when he learned that he was so anemic as to need an urgent transfusion, taking a blood transfusion would go “against everything” he believes in with respect to what he does with his body, given his belief in “natural medicine.” I was not surprised to learn that, but what was odd and led Bigtree to promoting dangerous propaganda was that apparently his first thought after a dread of transfusion was this:
But, most importantly, I was thinking, “How the heck am I going to know whether or not the blood I’m getting that I need has been vaccinated or not?”
My first thought would have been: Get me to the hospital and get me that blood to save my life!
It’s Bigtree, though. Instead, he reached out to his ER doc friend again. (I’d really like to know who this doc is, given that he sounds like an utter quack, but such is life. All we know is that this doctor works in Austin somewhere.) His question was: Do they track whether donors have been vaccinated against COVID-19? The answer he received was that they do not.
It turns out not to be entirely true that they don’t ask about COVID-19 vaccination status. The Red Cross, at least, does just that. It even has a webpage entitled Can I donate after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine?, where it states:
The Red Cross is following FDA blood donation eligibility guidance for those who receive the COVID-19 vaccination. Deferral times for donations may vary depending on which brand of vaccine you received. If you’ve received a COVID-19 vaccine, you’ll need to provide the manufacturer name when you come to donate. In most cases, there is no deferral time for individuals who received a COVID-19 vaccine as long as they are symptom-free and feeling well at the time of donation.
- The following eligibility guidelines apply to each COVID-19 vaccine received, including boosters: There is no deferral time for eligible blood donors who are vaccinated with a non-replicating inactivated or RNA-based COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by AstraZeneca, Janssen/J&J, Moderna, Novavax, or Pfizer.
- Eligible blood donors who received a live attenuated COVID-19 vaccine or do not know what type of COVID-19 vaccine they received must wait two weeks before giving blood.
- If you have an appointment scheduled and need to change your donation date based on the above guidance, click here.
If you have further eligibility questions, please call 1-800-RED CROSS. Regardless, of the type of vaccine an individual receives, all donors must be symptom-free and feeling well at the time of donation. If an individual is experiencing any symptoms from the COVID-19 vaccine, the Red Cross asks that they postpone their donation until they are feeling better.
When you receive your COVID-19 vaccination, make sure you receive a handout with information about the vaccine, including the name of the manufacturer. It is encouraged to bring this information with you to your donation appointment.
It’s possible that the blood bank at the hospital where Bigtree was treated doesn’t ask its blood donors about their COVID-19 vaccination status, but I tend to doubt it, given that most blood banks practice in accordance with the Red Cross guidelines. Whatever the case, let’s just assume that the blood bank at Bigtree’s friend’s hospital does not ask.
I also can’t help but point out here that it’s recently been found that current screening guidelines for blood donors are sufficient and that transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, from blood transfusion is incredibly rare, meaning that transfusions under current guidelines remains safe. Specifically, one study found that the rate of trace SARS-CoV-2 positivity in donated blood is around 0.001%.
“Other studies have shown that in rare cases where a blood sample tested positive, transmission by blood transfusion has not occurred,” said Sonia Bakkour, Ph.D., a scientist at the Vitalant Research Institute and part of the research team that analyzed the blood. She is also a scientist at the Department of Laboratory Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Therefore, it appears safe to receive blood as a transfusion recipient and to keep donating blood, without fear of transmitting COVID-19 as long as current screenings are used.”
None of this mattered to Bigtree (if he even knew or cared about it), and he began calling some of the quack “functional medicine” doctors whom he knew to ask if they could get him “unvaccinated blood.” He found one in Cancun, described as a “cancer doctor with clinics in Tijuana and Cancun.” (This made me wonder if it was Dr. Antonio Jimenez of the Hope4Cancer Treatment Centers, who was featured in the cancer quackery propaganda film series The Truth About Cancer.) No surprise, his Mexican cancer quack friend told Bigtree that he could deliver. There was a problem, though. Bigtree’s Hgb was so low that it was considered very dangerous for him to get on a plane, even a private jet, and fly to Cancun. He asked relatives to donate but discovered that directed donations require about a week to process, which was far too long a time given how low his Hgb was.
Here’s where the story gets even weirder. According to Bigtree, he reached out to his ER doc friend and his wife (who is also an ER doc), and one of them called every donor of every unit in the blood bank at his hospital in order to find one unit of “unvaccinated blood.” As another aside, I can’t help but observe that, contrary to the false claims of antimaskers that asking them what their medical condition is that prevents them from wearing a mask is a “violation of HIPAA,” the health privacy law, this sounds potentially like a real HIPAA violation to me.
In any event, according to Bigtree, his doctor friend found one donor who had not been vaccinated and arranged for him to get a transfusion of the unit of packed red blood cells from that one dono. This bumped his Hgb up to 5.8 g/dL, high enough (but still plenty low) for him to travel. So he jetted off in a private jet to Cancun, paid for by his supporters, for his transfusion and then flew back to be admitted, worked up, and treated for his bleeding hemorrhoids.
Must be nice.
Bigtree also bragged about how people were telling him how, at a Hgb of 4.8 g/dL, they couldn’t believe that he was able to talk to them, attributing his resiliency to all the acupuncture and other quackery he had been undergoing to “keep his life force strong” while waiting for a transfusion. A Hgb of 4.8 is low, but not so low that I as a surgeon would be surprised that you could still speak coherently. A person without pulmonary or cardiac disease can live almost indefinitely with a Hgb of 4.8 g/dL. The problem at that level is that, if you have ongoing blood loss (which Bigtree clearly did), then all your reserves are gone. There’s nothing left and almost no room to go lower. Further blood loss could lead to rapid cardiovascular collapse and death. Basically, Bigtree was walking on—if you’ll excuse the phrase—a highwire. He’s fortunate that this “highwire act” didn’t lead to his demise.
Unfortunately, as a result of Bigtree’s report, there is now the growing narrative that transfusion with “vaccinated blood” is dangerous. For example:
In fairness, the fear mongering about “vaccinated blood” by COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and antivaxxers has been going on for at least a few months now. It’s a natural byproduct of the disinformation campaign that falsely claims that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein itself is horribly toxic and that those vaccinated against COVID-19 make so much spike protein that they “shed” it and endanger those around them. In fact, barely detectable amounts of the spike protein generated by the vaccines gets into the blood circulation—and then only transiently at levels barely above the level of detection of very sensitive tests—and there’s no evidence that the vaccinated shed spike protein.
Again, I’m relieved that Bigtree is on the mend, as I wish harm on no one. Unfortunately, however, Bigtree’s story and fear mongering about “vaccinated blood” on Highwire are going to endanger lives. I can very easily envision people who really, really need a transfusion either delaying receiving it and wasting the time of their doctors by demanding to know if their blood donors were vaccinated or by refusing transfusion altogether. Disinformation of the sort that Del Bigtree spreads can kill. After all, disinformation about donated blood being “contaminated” because the donor was vaccinated against COVID-19 came close to killing Bigtree himself.