HOUSTON — Last April, after being told that only a transplant could save her from a fatal lung condition, Rebecca S. Tomczak began calling some of the top-ranked hospitals in the country.
She started with Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, just hours from her home near Augusta, Ga. Then she tried Duke and the University of Arkansas and Johns Hopkins. Each advised Ms. Tomczak, then 69, to look somewhere else.
The reason: Ms. Tomczak, who was baptized at age 12 as a Jehovah’s Witness, insisted for religious reasons that her transplant be performed without a blood transfusion. The Witnesses believe that Scripture prohibits the transfusion of blood, even one’s own, at the risk of forfeiting eternal life.
Given the complexities of lung transplantation, in which transfusions are routine, some doctors felt the procedure posed unacceptable dangers. Others could not get past the ethics of it all. With more than 1,600 desperately ill people waiting for a donated lung, was it appropriate to give one to a woman who might needlessly sacrifice her life and the organ along with it?
By the time Ms. Tomczak found Dr. Scott A. Scheinin at The Methodist Hospital in Houston last spring, he had long since made peace with such quandaries. Like a number of physicians, he had become persuaded by a growing body of research that transfusions often pose unnecessary risks and should be avoided when possible, even in complicated cases.
By cherry-picking patients with low odds of complications, Dr. Scheinin felt he could operate almost as safely without blood as with it. The way he saw it, patients declined lifesaving therapies all the time, for all manner of reasons, and it was not his place to deny care just because those reasons were sometimes religious or unconventional.
“At the end of the day,” he had resolved, “if you agree to take care of these patients, you agree to do it on their terms.”
Ms. Tomczak’s case — the 11th so-called bloodless lung transplant attempted at Methodist over three years — would become the latest test of an innovative approach that was developed to accommodate the unique beliefs of the world’s eight million Jehovah’s Witnesses but may soon become standard practice for all surgical patients.
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