NE Medicine performs first ever bloodless stem cell transplant on Jehovah's Witness


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Nebraska Medicine performs first ever bloodless stem cell transplant on Jehovah's Witness
Doctors believe it's not only the first time for the hospital, but the entire state of Nebraska.

Sep 3, 2018
Taylor Barth

OMAHA, Neb. —
In its more than 30 years of transplant operations, Nebraska Medicine has reached a new milestone by successfully performing a bloodless stem cell transplant on a Jehovah's Witness. Doctors believe it's not only the first time for the hospital but the entire state of Nebraska.

Nearly nine months ago, doctors diagnosed Vincenzo Neri with ultra-high-risk myeloma, which is a cancer of the blood cells.

"I had this pain, and I went to the doctor and they did an MRI and found out that I had cancer," Neri said, who lives in Bellevue.

The disease is typically treated through chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. While Neri received that treatment, his case is far from typical.

"This is a process that invariably means that patients, for support, get red blood cell transfusions as well as platelet transfusions," said Dr. Muhamed Baljevic, a multiple myeloma specialist and transplanter.

Neri could not receive any of those blood products because of his beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness. This created many challenges and risks.

Through research and consulting doctors around the country, Baljevic created a treatment plan for Neri and modified almost every single step in the transplantation process.

"We had to devise a management and treatment plan that would have things in place for what we can do, short of giving him those blood products that he can not accept," Baljevic said. "We had these plans in place where we used particular medicines to try to prevent him from bleeding, where we stimulated his own bone marrow with stimulating medicine and building blocks for red blood cells as much as we could -- such that we avoided altogether the need for any blood products."

On transplant day, Neri knew the risks associated with the procedure.

In his hospital room at Nebraska Medicine, Neri sat next to Baljevic. Neri is deaf, so the two communicated through a translator on a computer.

"This was a very, very high-risk procedure and (Baljevic) said, you know, there's a chance I won't make it," Neri said.

"Even though this was a very dangerous process and we were upfront and told him that we had no prior experience and he was going to be our very first patient, he trusted us," Baljevic said.

That trust paid off. Nearly a month after his transplant, Neri met with Baljevic for a follow-up appointment. He wore a suit to his check-up and was smiling.

"I'm so happy," Neri said.

He explained how his health has improved after the procedure.

"I went downhill very quickly and I'm feeling now -- freedom," Neri said. "I feel like the old body, the sick is gone."

He's also thankful and hopes his case might pave the way for other Jehovah's Witnesses with a similar story.

"I'm surprised," Neri said. "I'm excited. I'm relieved. I'm thankful that they respected my beliefs."

"Today, I feel beautiful."

Neri is still battling his cancer but said he continues to improve. Not only is he the first to undergo a bloodless stem cell transplant in Nebraska, he also recovered well. Doctors released him a week earlier than expected for patients like him.

"This is a fantastic outcome and we are very grateful," Baljevic said.

He called the experience rewarding.

"We hope other patients, who share (the) same beliefs, other Jehovah's Witnesses, or patients who cannot get blood products, know that we are very committed to provide top-quality care, multidisciplinary care and care that can meet the biggest challenges of modern medicine, and this is certainly one of them," Baljevic said.

There are only a limited number of hospitals in the U.S. that can handle similar cases.