An Atheist Doctor Helps Jehovah’s Witnesses Who Refuse Blood Transfusions

Jehovah’s Witnesses famously refuse blood transfusions — an irrational demand that has led to uncountable numbers of sad-but-preventable deaths.

At Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, though, one doctor — an atheist — is determined to help JWs suffering from advanced leukemia live, even though a blood transfusion is a common way to treat the problem.

Dr. Michael Lill, head of the blood and marrow transplant program at Cedars-Sinai’s Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, is a last recourse for Jehovah’s Witnesses with advanced leukemia.

They arrive at Lill’s door out of desperation and a desire to live. Many specialists decline to treat them because of their biblically centered refusal to accept blood transfusions, a mainstay of conventional care for the cancer.

Lill thinks their refusal is risky and illogical but nevertheless has devised a way to treat them that accommodates their religious convictions.

Despite his belief that God doesn’t exist, he has become a hero to many devout believers.

To avoid transfusions, Lill first builds up patients’ blood counts with medications. Then he limits blood loss during a regimen of chemotherapy and stem-cell transplants.

When he draws blood from patients to check their cell counts and organ function during treatment, he uses tiny pediatric tubes. He gives women a drug to suppress their periods and prescribes a hormone to boost red blood cells.

He has trained his staff in how to treat Jehovah’s Witnesses, and “No Blood” signs are posted in their hospital rooms.

As much as I don’t really want Dr. Lill caving in to irrational demands, I think this article speaks to his ingenuity. He’s found a way to give JWs hope where none existed before — though if the JWs would just accept the blood rather than act like God doesn’t want them to receive it, none of this would really even be an issue in the first place…

Side note for anyone interested: A few years ago, I wrote about the time I spent in medical school, where some of the case studies we discussed involved hypothetical scenarios featuring JWs not wanting blood transfusions.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Jonzee

    You think if they were that devout, they would be looking forward to dying for the opportunity to meet their maker.

    • http://twitter.com/0xabad1dea Melissa

       That’s not what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe. They teach that all devout except a certain fraction (the 144 Thousand, if I recall) will “go to sleep” in death until Judgement Day. So there is absolutely no point in dying sooner.

      • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

        In the mid-90s the NDP in BC picked Sam Wagar to run in a provincial by-election for Delta (South?).  It was later discovered that he was a Wiccan.  Nobody had bothered to ask, but if was felt that he should have made his religion known because, well, you know, it’s controversial.  I called a number of the NDP MLAs about it at the time, and the only one to return my call was Robin Blencoe.  I didn’t like his response that

        we had questions about the role of children in the religion

        but at least he responded.  Sam won a full apology, and the lawyer who represented him was a Jehovah’s Witness.

        Another point worth noting about JWs is that they’re pretty much the opposite of Mormons when it comes to racism.

        (didn’t really mean this to be a reply to Melissa in particular, but not ready to fight Disqus over it)

        • http://cuterus.blogspot.com/ Palaverer

          I don’t know where you got that idea about JWs and racism but speaking as someone who was hardcore JW for 20 years, that is patently not true. They’ve printed some ridiculously offensive stuff about black people (in paradise, everyone’s skin will turn white!), it took them forever to desegregate, and institutional racism is alive and well in terms of internal promotions.

          • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

            I’ll take your direct experience over the documentary I saw.  It wasn’t (or sure didn’t appear to be) produced by JWs, but it was a while ago.  Maybe it was just the JWs in it (one of the main people was a young white man who needed an operation that would require extra blood.  He was engaged to a black woman).  Or maybe it was mis-representing.

        • Anonymous

          But just like the Mormons, they are a cult who consider that their leaders are prophets from god and speak god’s will. They also demand unquestioning obedience and don’t tolerate any dissent. And they also shun apostates (even more so than Mormons actually)

    • Gus Snarp

      JWs don’t believe they get to meet their maker when they die. They still have to wait around, dead, until the rapture. That’s how it sounded at my JW grandmother in law’s funeral anyway.

  • Gus Snarp

    My grandmother in law needed a transfusion to save her life. In spite of being a devout JW, when they told her she quickly said yes. Sadly, she took a turn for the worse before the could transfuse her and she didn’t make it. We’ll never know if the church members who came out of the woodwork when she entered the hospital and made sure her chart said “no blood” delayed them asking her and led to her death or not.

    It may be silly to decide one irrational Christian belief is more irrational than another, but that these people die because they interpret an old testament dietary restriction as a proscription of a modern medical treatment is a tragic absurdity.

    • Anonymous

       Even when considering Christian beliefs, the blood thing is particularly stupid.  They take a handful of passages about not eating blood out of context, while ignoring everything around them. They are also very inconsistent about which blood products they allow. Some things like plasma (I think) are fine for example.

  • Sabrina

    They believe “God” doesn’t want them to have a blood transfusion but does want them to have cancer? Then again it’s as rational as most religious beliefs. It is awesome that this doctor found a way to treat them, since they wouldn’t have another option they find acceptable. It sounds like he really cares about the people he treats. If only someone would find a way to treat stupid, then we’d be in business. 

  • Anonymous

    I simply have no sympathy for them. They have access to what can treat them, possibly save their lives, and they refuse it because of a bunch of irrational bullshit. On the other other hand, there are countless human beings on this planet who do not have access to healthcare that would treat their illnesses and possibly save their lives. Fuck ‘em.

    • se habla espol

      How very christian of you, TheAnalogKid.

      • Anonymous

        I’m not sure what you mean. I’m not a Christian. I don’t refuse medical care because of irrational religious bullshit. I wouldn’t deny my children (if I had any) medical care because of irrational religious bullshit. Are you being facetious?

        • se habla espol

          I simply have no sympathy for them. 

          One of the practices of many of the christianities is to dehumanize anyone who doesn’t think and act in a fashion that the christianity approves of.  The dehumanization includes denying empathy towards the non-conformist: in other words, “I simply have no sympathy for them. ”
          Rational thought forms a distinguishing characteristic of the human species — but many christianities teach, and often require, that rational thought be suppressed in favor of faith. The fact that JWs suppress the quality of being human does not make them subhuman, it just makes them act like it.
          Another quality of humanity, shared with more species, is empathy; this is another quality that christianities suppress with regard to out-groups.
          Your denial of empathy for those unfortunate enough to have been suckered into a virulent subhuman believe and behavior is, as I said to begin with, a very christian thing to do.  But, in spite of their denial, JWs are human, too.  A JW deserves my sympathy, just like any other human.  YMMV

          • Anonymous

            I’m not going to repeatedly beg someone to save their own life. It’s their choice. There are those who need help and will accept it. You spend your time however you choose. I won’t waste time trying to convince someone who won’t accept help because of a ancient, irrational belief when there is someone who will accept it.

            • Anonymous

              Really there is already too much irrationality in the world for people to go out of their way to save  people like JWs. Good riddance for bad rubbish: if they believe so fervently that there is a next world and is more important than this one, than stop trying to find loopholes to stay on this one.

  • http://cuterus.blogspot.com/ Palaverer

    Ugh, they’re just going to add this to their anti-blood promotional machine and take it as evidence that God is supporting their stupid belief.

  • Silo

    Not only did the doctor demonstrate his ingenuity, he demonstrated his integrity. He wants to heal, to help others, and despite thinking that the JWs have generally ridiculous beliefs, he stepped outside the box and found a way to save lives that otherwise would not have been saved.

    And that’s “saved” in the useful, physiological sense, by the way. Not the other, WTF sense.

    • Anonymous

      Not only did the doctor demonstrate his ingenuity, he demonstrated his integrity. He wants to heal, to help others, and despite thinking that the JWs have generally ridiculous beliefs, he stepped outside the box and found a way to save lives that otherwise would not have been saved.

      You nailed it all, right there.  Kudos to this doctor for not letting his potential eye-rolling prevent him from putting his patients first (despite possibly thinking they’re frigging crazy).   

      Integrity indeed.

      • Anonymous

        Jehovah’s Witnesses take blood.  They take all fractions of blood. This includes hemoglobin, albumin, clotting factors, cryosupernatant and cryopoor too, and many, many, others.  If one adds up all the blood fractions the JWs takes, it equals a whole unit of blood.  Any, many of these fractions are made from thousands upon thousands of units of donated blood.Jehovah’s Witnesses can take Bovine *cow’s blood* as long as it is euphemistically called synthetic Hemopure.Jehovah’s Witnesses also take whole blood, as long as it’s called “current therapy.”  This is something not found in medical literature, per se.  But, it is described by the religion as a taking of blood from a person, mixing it with compounds in a lab, and later retransfusing the blood back into the patient.  So, it appears that JWs can have their blood separated from their body and later reuse it too.If this doesn’t sound “bloodless” to any of you reading it, it’s not.  And, the result is that the JWs are questioning their religion’s requirement that they not take a blood transfusion.  JWs face being shunned if they do take whole blood, red blood, white blood, or plasma.  This shunning is severe and is a complete cutting off from their super close community of friends and relatives.    JWs have to choose between this life or the next, and meander through a religion’s not very straightforward blood ban.ajwrb.org is a great resource for doctors and hospitals. The New York city based Watchtower sect is concerned foremost with liability lawsuits for wrongful death.They know that if they repeal the ban on *whole* blood transfusion,that it will open the door for legal examination of all the thousands who have died since 1945. –Danny Haszard

  • Conspirator

    I’m not a doctor, I have no idea how I’d handle this if I were faced with it, but part of me feels to hell with the adults, they chose this stupidity themselves, but it’s great kids of these whack-a-loons have options. 

    • Anonymous

      While is good that the children have this option, I would hope for them being removed from the care of this stupid cult and being treated by conventional, well-proven medicinal methods.

  • Flora

    I totally respect this doctor. Physicans must respect the beliefs and decisions of all of our patients as long as they are informed on the issue. I’m not saying that the JW are in any way justified  in what they believe, but he deserves recognition for working with them in spite of what many people would see as an insurmountable obstacle to care.  I’ve learned that a lot of people believe a lot of crazy things, and that doesn’t mean they deserve to be sent home to die.

    • Anonymous

      They’re choosing to die, no one is sending them home to die.

      • http://twitter.com/Noadi Sheryl

        Some of those you claim are “choosing to die” are children whose parents give them no choice. I think that is murder but unfortunately the courts rarely see it that way. I’m glad this doctor has more compassion than you do.

        • Anonymous

          Fuck you. No one is talking about children who are being forced into it by their fucked up parents.

  • http://disrespectfultone.blogspot.com/ Daniel Schealler

    Here’s a thought: Do the JW’s restrict a blood transfusion if the incoming blood is yours?

    Idea being:

    1) All JW’s take it upon themselves to store blood on a regular basis with their local church/hospital.

    2) If that JW then gets into trouble later, then they can accept a transfusion of their own blood at a later date.

    We could get two birds with one stone if the reneweal cycle of the blood was such that, after the first five stored blood donations, the sixth-most-eldest is then donated to someone else. Of course, this depends on how the JW’s feel about other people receiving a transfusion of their own blood, which is another question entirely.

    In hindsight, I’m guessing that the prohibition against transfusion is universal and across the board. I can’t possibly be the first person to think of this possible solution, so if it were a valid option then I’m sure it would have been implemented before now and it wouldn’t be an issue.

    Pity. Could have been a life saving work-around.

    • http://cuterus.blogspot.com/ Palaverer

      In the past, JWs were forbidden from storing their own blood. There have been changes made in the last ten years, so I don’t know if they’re allowing that now. They are allowed to take blood fractions (just don’t combine them together into whole blood!) though it’s still frowned upon enough that talking about it could get you into trouble.

    • SuzBMT

      I don’t know much about their religious beliefs but a major flaw with your idea it that you can’t store the blood for very long. The cells will die. 

      • http://disrespectfultone.blogspot.com/ Daniel Schealler

        Just did a quick search on that too.

        Turns out that the shelf-life of donated blood is way, way shorter than I thought it was.

        I thought it was short, as in on the order of six months or so.

        But from what I’ve gleaned online just now, although the plasma itself can be stored for a long time, the actual blood itself can expire in a few days if not treated properly, is best before 7 days even if stored properly, and can expire altogether after as short a time as 30 days.

        That’s really short.

        Man. I need to go donate some blood.

      • http://disrespectfultone.blogspot.com/ Daniel Schealler

        Just did a quick search on that too.

        Turns out that the shelf-life of donated blood is way, way shorter than I thought it was.

        I thought it was short, as in on the order of six months or so.

        But from what I’ve gleaned online just now, although the plasma itself can be stored for a long time, the actual blood itself can expire in a few days if not treated properly, is best before 7 days even if stored properly, and can expire altogether after as short a time as 30 days.

        That’s really short.

        Man. I need to go donate some blood.

    • SuzBMT

      I don’t know much about their religious beliefs but a major flaw with your idea it that you can’t store the blood for very long. The cells will die. 

  • Heliconia

    Are the stem cell transplants they receive their own cells, then?

    • SuzBMT

      Yes. It’s called an autologous transplant. It doesn’t actually cure the cancer, like an allogeneic (stem cells from another person) would. It’s done to help recover from the chemo. 

      • SuzBMT

        I take that back. One patient in the article had a related donor. I wouldn’t that thought the JW’s would allow that.

      • SuzBMT

        I take that back. One patient in the article had a related donor. I wouldn’t that thought the JW’s would allow that.

  • Keulan

    It’s nice that doctors like Dr. Lill are finding ways to treat them without compromising their silly beliefs, but it still annoys me that people take such huge risks with their health based on moronic religious dogma. I don’t think I’d be able to tolerate the stupidity of refusing such life-saving treatment like the doctor in that article does.

  • Glasofruix

     Why do i think of natural selection every time i read about religious idiots refusing treatement?

    • T-Rex

      YES! ^ this^

      Time to vacuum the gene pool and backwash the filter.

    • Anonymous

      The thought certainly occured to me

  • Anonymous

    In 2012 God’s will and scripture got nothing to do with the Jehovah’s Witnesses position on use of blood products.
    It is 100 percent what will play out in a secular court of law as to the parent Watchtower being held liable for deaths.
    Most Jehovah’s Witnesses rushed to the ER with massive blood loss will scream NO BLOOD right up to their last breath,The shocker is they can NOW have most of the blood components that will pull them through,but they are so indoctrinated that blood is forbidden that they can’t comprehend the loopholes.
    The Watchtower has drilled and grilled us that our STAND ON BLOOD IS NON NEGOTIABLE.
    The loopholes that allow blood usage is to save the Watchtower corporation money from blood death liability suits.
    This is a truly evil organization that would sacrifice tens of thousands of men,women,children for the almighty dollar.
    The blood products ban has been in force since 1945 the buzz today about it being a *personal conscience matter*  and the hope of new medical advances like artificial blood don’t undo all those who have past perished.
     
    The New York city based Watchtower sect is concerned foremost with liability lawsuits for wrongful death.They know that if they repeal the ban on *whole* blood transfusion,that it will open the door for legal examination of all the thousands who have died since 1945.
     –
    Danny Haszard
     

  • http://twitter.com/mywall mywall

    Good stuff. This seems like a good technique to develop even without the JW reasoning. This work could, presumably, be used in situations where blood is unavailable or in short supply.

  • C.Evans

    With the advent of “cultured blood” – not obtained from human donors, I have to wonder if the JW’s will evaluate that as ‘acceptable’.

    http://www.news-medical.net/news/20110903/Researchers-inject-cultured-red-blood-cells-created-from-HSCs-into-human-donor.aspx

  • Anonymous

    This is certainly commendable, but I don’t think it should become obligatory if the alternative course of treatment is more costly than the standard one. If doctors are willing to do this and the insurance company is willing to pay up, then it’s fine that it exists as an option, but at no point should an insurance company be obligated to pay for it if it’s more expensive. If your objection is based on safety, that’s entirely legitimate, but if your objection is based on religion, there should be no legal obligation to cater to that.

    Now, I think therapy is interesting chiefly because if you can improve it enough to make it as safe and workable as mere transfusions, it can be extremely useful. Transfusions depend on blood donations, by neccesity a limited resource, so to the extent that one can find alternative treatments that minimize their use, you make treatments more easily available to patients, especially those with rare blood types. JWs are all kinds of crazy, but they have put money into research towards developing artificial blood. Even if their motivation is crazy, the research can be quite useful.

    • SuzBMT

      They’re transplanting the patient’s own cells so it’s actually cheaper than a transplant done with donated stem cells.

  • Gary Hill

    I once collected data for medical research from a JW family and assumed they would not give me blood samples. I was surprised when I was able to collect 30ml from all 4 of them.

    While I commend the doctor for his ingenuity I too have little sympathy for JW adults. First, I’m sure clinicians can make better use of their time than devising inventive workarounds to deal with people with irrational views. Second, surely if JWs are so serious about their beliefs it is they who should be stumping up the cash to devise these workarounds?

  • T-Rex

    “To avoid transfusions, Lill first builds up patients’ blood counts with medications. Then he limits blood loss during a regimen of chemotherapy and stem-cell transplants.
    When he draws blood from patients to check their cell counts and organ function during treatment, he uses tiny pediatric tubes. He gives women a drug to suppress their periods and prescribes a hormone to boost red blood cells.”

    WTF? They’ll refuse blood transfusions, but all these other treatments and medications are ok? Ya, that makes perfect sense. These people are mentally ill as well.

    • http://twitter.com/Noadi Sheryl

      JWs aren’t opposed to modern medicine, only blood transfusions from 3rd parties (they generally are okay with having their own blood drawn, stored, and transferred back into themselves) due to a verse in the bible. I think it’s ridiculous but I’m glad they accept other modern medicine.

      • Anonymous

        I really think they should be consistent in their worldview and accept that the cancer God gave them is something to be embraced not fought and remove themselves from the gene pool. As for children, I really think they should be removed from the care of someone that put a irrational belief over their lives.

  • Alex

    That’s one of the questions on my list to ask JWs if they ever knock on my door seeking conversion, and not merely distributing pamphlets. Others being attitude towards gays and sex outside of marriage.

    Kudos to the doctor, though. Way to solve a puzzle with such a serious handicap. That’s how professionals become great professionals, by recognizing a learning opportunity in a non-standard situation.

  • http://www.tomsheepandgoats.com/blood_transfusions/ Tomsheepandgoats

    I wonder if atheist Dr Lill is able to treat his JW patients without insulting them, as almost all on this thread have felt compelled to do. I assume he is. And I appreciate a doctor like him who knows he is treating the “whole person” and doesn’t run roughshod over them simply because of beliefs he doesn’t agree with or understand.

    • The Other Weirdo

       The doctor would be discussing medicine with them. This thread is discussing their crazy religious beliefs. Different situations, and therefore different rules apply.

      • http://www.tomsheepandgoats.com/ Tomsheepandgoats

        Okay. Point taken. In that case, I’m proud as a Witness to have done my part to advance science. For it seems clear that bloodless medicine would not have advanced so far, if indeed it would even get off the ground, without the ‘demand’ provided by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Having courageous doctors like Dr Lill rise to the occasion, breakthroughs are made and new techniques and insights are gained that benefit all.

        For example, says Gavin Murphy, a cardiac surgeon at the Bristol Heart Institute in the UK: “There is virtually no high-quality study in surgery, or intensive or acute care – outside of when you are bleeding to death – that shows that blood transfusion is beneficial, and many that show it is bad for you:” And the U.S. Army is now training its medical personnel in bloodless medicine, convinced that such training will save both lives and money. Surely the JW factor has prompted research that has led many hospitals, though by no means all, to cease administering transfusions, more or less routinely, after operations…topping off the tank, so to speak, in order to “perk the patient up” a bit.

        By eliminating the risk of foreign tissue, human error, and blood-borne diseases, these new bloodless techniques offer a safety margin that conventional blood transfusions do not. Might the day come, or is it here already, when the number of lives saved through such medicine will outnumber those lost by a few members of a relatively tiny religious group that stuck to its principles amidst much opposition?

        • http://cuterus.blogspot.com/ Palaverer

          Might the day come, or is it here already, when the number of lives
          saved through such medicine will outnumber those lost by a few members
          of a relatively tiny religious group that stuck to its principles amidst
          much opposition?

          First of all, fuck this. I know these people. I was these people, and I’m not going to write off the individuals who died due to the treachery of the Watchtower as having been martyrs to a grand cause. They didn’t die because blood transfusions were unsafe, they died because they were lied to.

          Second of all, it’s not integrity, it’s fear. JWs are brainwashed into obeying everything the Watchtower tells them, and they’re threatened with shunning if they listen to other sources or defy the Watchtower.

          I’m all for safe medicine. But Watchtower has this big PR machine going with its anti-blood stance and all it’s going to do is make JWs that much more sure that Watchtower is always right about everything–and that is a miserable existence.

          • http://www.tomsheepandgoats.com/ Tomsheepandgoats

            Okay, okay, you don’t like Jehovah’s Witnesses. Got it. Still, you didn’t answer the question.

            If you walk into the ER room, bare your arm, and say “fill her up” just to show JWs what you think of them, who’s the irrational one?

            The fact is, bloodless medicine, where it is applicable, which is usually, introduces a far safer standard of care. And it would not have come about, or at least come about so quickly, without Jehovah’s Witnesses stimulating demand. Therefore the  scientific community owes JWs a debt of gratitude. Again the question:

            Might the day come, or is it here already, when the number of lives saved through such medicine will outnumber those lost by a few members of a relatively tiny religious group that stuck to its principles amidst much opposition?

            • http://cuterus.blogspot.com/ Palaverer

              You are reading me totally wrong. I don’t dislike JWs. I empathize with them. I dislike the Watchtower corporation and their mendacious control tactics over the individuals in the organization. As for your question, I did answer that and I guess since you didn’t like the answer, you chose to ignore it, so screw you.

    • http://disrespectfultone.blogspot.com/ Daniel Schealler

      I wonder if atheist Dr Lill is able to treat his JW patients without insulting them, as almost all on this thread have felt compelled to do.

      I’m more concerned that religion is causing people to make decisions with potentially fatal consequences for entirely non-rational reasons.

      Compared to needless preventable death, mere insult to your feelings seems so mild as to be negligible.

      At least one of us has bizarre priorities.

  • Hilary

    I find it interesting that ethically they will not receive blood transfusions but they will accept stem-cells.

    I like this emergency room story of the unlikely survival without blood transfusions:

    http://badtadmd.com/?p=385 

    Thank you for sharing this story!

    Hilary
    http://www.hilaryjarman.com

  • Daintexas

    All religion has bs irrational practices. Condemning theirs,
    While you yourself are a Christian is asinine an hypocritical. At least they adhere to their beliefs by the book where as “sunday christians” manipulate there views to fit their desired lifestyle. If pork was the only thing that would save a Jewish person from a deadly disease, would


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