Medical Procedure Designed for Jehovah's Witnesses

One of the most e-mailed stories at NPR.org this week is a profile of Dr. Michael Lill, who developed a way for Jehovah's Witnesses to receive bone marrow transplants without the blood transfusions their faith prohibits.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

And I have one of the most e-mailed stories at npr.org right now. It's a profile of a man named Dr. Michael Lill, he's the head of the Bone Marrow Transplant Program at Cedar-Sinai Medical Center, and he developed this program specifically for Jehovah's Witnesses to receive bone marrow transplants without blood transfusions which would be against their religion.

Patty Neighmond reported the story about Dr. Lill and here's a little bit of that story.

Dr. MICHAEL LILL (Medical Director, Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Cedar-Sinai Medical Center): So this - so I'm mainly presenting patient Ruth Medina(ph), she's a 25-year-old female Jehovah's Witness here for autologous stem cell transplant for Jehovah's Witness protocol.

PATRICIA NEIGHMOND: Ruth Medina is unusual because her religion forbids any medical treatment that uses blood or blood products.

Ms. RUTH MEDINA (Patient): For me, it's the sanctity of blood or blood is the life of a person.

NEIGHMOND: That means Medina will refuse a blood transfusion. But she's here for a bone marrow transplant to treat Hodgkin's Lymphoma, and transfusions are typically given to boost patient's strength and help them survive the transplant.

Dr. LILL: How are you doing today?

Ms. MEDINA: I feel good. I'm just really tired, but I'm good.

NEIGHMOND: Ruth Medina is bald from recent chemotherapy but she sits upright in her bed looking strong and beautiful in her bluish gown. She says she's completely comfortable with her decision to say no to a blood transfusion even to save her life.

Ms. MEDINA: We actually don't ever even sit around and cry about it, we're always so optimistic about it. We know that it's something that I can get over, I have a lot of strength.

NEIGHMOND: Medina came to Cedars because Dr. Lill decided to buck the system and give Jehovah's Witness patients a chance against cancer by performing bone marrow transplants.

Dr. LILL: Many of my colleagues think that I'm slightly crazy to be doing this and they're more than happy to refer their Jehovah's Witness patients to me.

NEIGHMOND: Other doctors won't risk is because they worry patients might die without a transfusion. But when Dr. Lill examined the actual statistics he found most patients didn't really need them. He decided to conserve patients' blood and make the need for transfusion even less likely.

Dr. LILL: What we do for a Jehovah's Witness patients is the blood tests go into pediatric tubes so we don't use as much blood, we don't draw the blood from the central line so we don't throw away that first tablespoon, we don't do as many blood tests.

NEIGHMOND: Since the program began six years ago, Cedars has performed so-called bloodless transplants for 21 Jehovah's Witnesses.

Dr. LILL: In my capacity as a healer, I am not a technician. We are supposed to be treating the whole human being and that involves an understanding of their spiritual aspects as well as the mechanical/technical aspects of deciding what dose of chemotherapy I give for what particular indication.

NEIGHMOND: Lill's decision to treat these patients is motivated not only by respect for their beliefs but also by Lill's own philosophical commitment.

Dr. LILL: I think amongst our most important set of core values in the United States are the philosophy that comes out of the Enlightenment, and a key part of that came out of so many people killing each other in such horrible ways for so many hundreds of years in the middle of Europe over religious issues.

NEIGHMOND: So for Lill it simply comes down to this.

Dr. LILL: Individuals get the right to make their own choices even if they're bad choices.

MARTIN: If you want to hear Patty Neighmond's entire profile of Dr. Lill, go to our Web site, npr.org/bryantpark.

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