L.A. Times fails to draw religious blood

Did you hear the one about the atheist doctor asked to treat Jehovah's Witnesses who don't believe in blood transfusions? Well, it's no joke, as the Los Angeles Times highlighted in a Column One story — the newspaper's most prime real estate — this week:

The Times' compelling opening:

Christina Blouvan-Cervantes had been battling aggressive leukemia when her blood count plummeted and she landed in the emergency room in Fresno. Her doctors told her a blood transfusion was her only hope. But her faith wouldn't allow her to receive one.

So she turned to one of the only doctors who could possibly keep her alive: a committed atheist who views her belief system as wholly irrational.

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.

It's not a terrible story at all. In fact, I'd describe it as almost adequate.

On the positive side, the writer certainly treats the religious beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses with respect.

The problem, from a GetReligion perspective, is that the piece handles the religion element in such a casual, shallow way. My suspicion after reading the entire 1,500 words was that a health writer, not a Godbeat pro, produced the story (and I was right). Too bad the Times didn't employ an editor with religion expertise to ask simple questions that could have improved the report dramatically.

For instance:

— Consider this paragraph:

Jehovah's Witnesses draw their beliefs about blood from a literal interpretation of the Bible, which repeatedly warns against its consumption. Among the passages often cited by adherents: "You must not eat the blood; pour it out on the ground like water."

Why not cite the specific biblical reference (Deuteronomy 15:23)?

— And this graf:

During Lill's rounds one recent morning at Cedars-Sinai, he washed his hands and went into the room of Kyle Hester, a 21-year-old Jehovah's Witness from Fresno who was waiting for a stem cell transplant. Hester lay in his bed, hooked to an IV and an oxygen tube. His face was pale and his arms swollen. A book of Scripture lay open beside him.

What book of Scripture are we talking about? Is it the Jehovah's Witnesses' own New World Translation?

— And this passage:

Wanda Smith, a Jehovah's Witness from Texas, sat on an examination table in Cedars-Sinai's outpatient cancer center. Her husband, Will, clasped a blue bag filled with medications.

Lill greeted the couple and launched into routine questions about her recovery from her stem cell transplant: Any coughing or shortness of breath? Nausea or vomiting? How is your appetite?

Smith, 65, announced in a Southern accent that she had gained six pounds in a week. Lill teased her about a Jehovah's Witness tenet: "And you aren't supposed to be celebrating Christmas or anything else."

"No, I didn't," she laughed. "I just got my appetite back."

You get the vague impression that Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate Christmas. But why not use the opportunity to share a few details about their beliefs, including why they don't celebrate Christmas, Easter or other holidays they consider pagan?

— Finally, this graf:

She heard about Lill through her church, and soon she was undergoing chemotherapy at Cedars-Sinai. After returning home, she ended up in the emergency room with a high fever. As she moaned and struggled to breathe, doctors and nurses pleaded with her to accept a blood transfusion. Barely able to speak, she scribbled a note: "Please don't give me blood."

The Religion Newswriters Association's online stylebook notes that Jehovah's Witnesses call their gathering places "Kingdom Halls," not "churches."

That's a minor detail maybe.

But the lack of attention to it seems to exemplify the story's overall indifference to the religion angle — both in terms of the Jehovah's Witnesses' faith and the atheist doctor's lack thereof.

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