I read fellow ScienceBlogger Orac’s take on the sad case of Dennis Lindberg, the 14 year old boy with acute leukemia who died after refusing to accept blood transfusions due to his religious beliefs, and felt like putting my own two cents in this dialogue.
As a medical oncologist who occasionally cares for patients who are Jehovah’s Witnesses my opinion is this:
Why would cancer specialists agree to give induction chemotherapy for acute myelogenous leukemia to a patient whom they knew could not survive the treatment? Such a decision, to proceed with intensive chemotherapy in a patient who is likely to die due to his refusal to accept blood transfusions, seems to me to be a splendid example of medical myopia, if not pretentiousness.
Not knowing the details of the case, of course it is ridiculous of me to speculate, but I do have a couple of questions:
1. Did the doctors think Dennis Lindberg would survive his treatment without transfusions? Is that why they proceeded with his chemotherapy?
2. Did they inform the patient that if he accepts chemotherapy without receiving any transfusions his risk of dying is much higher than normal, if not unavoidable?
3. Did they give Dennis the option to take a safer treatment, even though non-curative, in an attempt to palliate his illness without exposing him to the mortality of severe myelosuppression? If he was willing to die rather than violate his faith, did they consider alternative care that would help him to live out the rest of his life as he wished?
Putting aside the controversy over Dennis Lindberg’s age, my philosophy is this – if I think that a treatment is too risky to subject a patient to, then I will politely refuse and explain why, and if asked, help the patient find another oncologist. Life is fraught with danger and sadness enough without the meddling of physicians who cannot accept the fact that some of us are not willing to sacrifice our beliefs, whether religious or otherwise, on the altar of medicine.