Miracles happen in medicine

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Dr. Victor Sierpina

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series.

The other day, a lovely 81-year-old patient, let’s call her Edna, an active community volunteer, came in to see me after a bad fall.

The swelling and lack of mobility in her upper arm made me suspect that she had broken her humerus, the big bone in the upper arm. I based this nearly certain assessment on my many years of primary care and emergency room practice.

Since I don’t have X-ray eyes, I ordered an X-ray while our hardworking staff simultaneously arranged for a visit to orthopedics for the requisite splinting.

Imagine my surprise and relief later that morning to find the X-rays were normal. No fracture at all.

When I called Edna to report this happy outcome, she told me she had prayed fervently on the way to Radiology and was quite sure this prayer had had its desired effect, that things would be normal.

Of course, I could have dismissed her personal miracle, but I chose instead to reflect on this story and share it with you. Every doctor knows his or her fallibility, the limits of both our art and science. We can always be wrong though we constantly study and try not to be.

Something left out of medical school curriculum is the realm of miracles. The medical field is primarily driven by a view of the world that can be called scientific materialism.

In this world, experiences like Edna’s are foreign. We just don’t teach our students and residents to consider miracles as realistic or even remotely possible or relevant to the care of the sick or dying.

I recently came across a quote by one of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis:

“Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses, something seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted. And our senses are not infallible. If anything extraordinary seems to have happened, we can always say that we have been the victims of an illusion. If we hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural, this is what we always shall say. What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.”

So the realm of the supernatural, including the occurrence of miracles, is routinely left out of modern medicine training and practice. None of that kind of superstitious thinking for us! Yet every doctor in practice for any significant amount of time has experienced the occurrence of mystery and the unexplainable in the lives of his or her patients.

Among the challenges to current thinking are the many documented cases of unexplained healing. Dr. Andrew Weil’s book “Spontaneous Healing” is a log of numerous cases that cannot be accounted for by our contemporary medical science.

One poignant example was a 10-year-old boy, call him Steve, with a usually fatal osteosarcoma. This is a bone cancer usually treated by amputation of a limb. This treatment, the standard of care, was reasonably and responsibly recommended by a top cancer center doctor in New York.

However, rather than having the recommended amputation of his leg to save his life, Steve and his parents declined this option. Instead, they chose to return to the supportive community of his family, friends and home in a remote Idaho town. There, they would let things run their course.

In the view of his cancer doctors this was a suicidal choice, maybe even child neglect. Without treatment, he was expected to die, likely in a year or less.

Many years later, a researcher on spontaneous healing found Steve. Despite the grim prognosis, the boy with bone cancer was in his 20s, alive and well, and cancer free.

When the researcher contacted Steve’s cancer doctor in New York to verify the original diagnosis, she was initially greeted professionally and pleasantly.

However, once she told him that this former patient was still alive despite not taking treatment, the doctor cursed and slammed down the phone on her.

Apparently, the occurrence of such a surprising healing, perhaps best described as a miracle, was an unacceptable shock to his belief system.

While I certainly do not recommend ignoring a doctor’s advice, especially with a life-threatening disease like cancer, in this case, something miraculous happened. No one, not even the patient and his family had the least idea how his unexpected survival might have transpired.

Maybe miracles are normal, natural and occur all the time. Only our failure to believe in them keeps us from recognizing how ordinary they are and how regularly they occur.

If you are ready, open yourself to the unexpected, the unknown blessings and the personal healing that some call miracles. You won’t see it until you believe it.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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