PBS’s ‘This Emotional Life’: Rethinking ‘Medical Miracles’

Saint Augustine wrote: “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.”

A phenomena within health care, often applied when no rational scientific explanation can be given, preexists medicine itself. Be it via the Internet, urban legends or contemporary television and cinema, we have all marveled at the thought of the teen who lived 118 days without a heart, or the paraplegic man who was once again able to walk after being bitten by a brown recluse spider, or the window washer who fell 47 stories and awoke from his coma on Christmas Day. Sometimes, medical degree or no, the only way to explain the reasoning behind such patient outcomes is to use that often overburdened word — miracle.

From the outset, medicine and religion have been begrudgingly forced to spar in their attempts to provide relief. As the two have evolved, they have constantly found ways to overlap, each jockeying for position as the times around them changed. One point of mutual interest and competition has always dealt with diagnosis. For example, thanks to advances in modern medical technology, we now know Tourette’s Syndrome to be a rare neurological disorder. In its more aggressive stages, Tourette’s presents itself with facial tics and expressions, the perception of the eyes rolling upwards, and involuntary, often guttural sounds. Though contemporary physicians are capable of recognizing this disease for what it is, it is interesting to note that Tourette’s was once widely understood to be a form of demonic possession, and dealt with accordingly.

On the flip side, take the curious phenomenon of Lazarus Syndrome. Since 1982, there have been 25 documented cases of a deceased patient coming back to life without any medical intervention whatsoever, due to a spontaneous and unexplained restarting of the heart muscle after death. The name comes from the biblical tale of Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus after four days. Though medical science has put forth several possible theories for such an occurrence, it remains a widely debated mystery to this day, from both a scientific and religious standpoint.

Whether or not a patient believes in miracles, there can be no dispute that certain advances in medicine are nothing short of miraculous. In 1944, doctors performed heart surgery for the first time. In 1952, Jonas Salk took the first step toward eradicating the dreaded polio virus. Today, scientists can administer vaccines to cure many diseases, some even after infection. These same scientists believe they can also inject a patient with his or her own cells to help repair vital organs, thereby allowing the patient’s body to essentially heal itself without any outside, invasive intervention. More and more, the gulf between miracles and modern technologies continues to widen.

At their core, both medicine and religion seek to heal. To support this objective, modern medicine began to focus its attention on shortening the list of any diagnosis that could be classified as a “terminal illness” (an illness from which, despite treatment, death is certain). At the turn of the twentieth century, as patients began to realize that modern medicine was advancing quickly and achieving previously unheard of results, the role of medicine itself started to change. Patients began to expect not only treatment of symptoms, but cures. With this understanding came a new feature formerly the exclusive jurisdiction of religion, the possibility of hope.

To a certain degree, the medical miracles of yesterday have slowly become the miraculous advances of today. Many previously unexplained situations are now seen clearly from a scientific standpoint, a sure sign of progress. But to hospital patients and their loved ones who must face incurable disease, this temporal distinction weighs in as little more than semantics. Looking in from the outside, it appears that most families do not care whether comfort comes from a modern miracle or medical breakthrough, so long as it eases the pain.

No matter how far science advances, however, one should never discount religious faith within the medical arena. In fact, it is just such conviction that has always pointed the way to medical success. Study after study has shown that the act of having faith — be it in an afterlife, an all knowing creator, or a CT scanner — can have a dramatic effect on both the condition and quality of life during a loved one’s final days, for the patient and family alike. Modern medicine still has a long way to go in its quest to unravel definitively the mysteries of the human body, and when its efforts fail us, faith is the only remaining foundation.

Should you find yourself in the unenviable position of comforting a loved one when time is short, faith may prove to be your most powerful tool. In such times, communication and honesty are of utmost importance. Ask questions of the patient, and respect his or her needs and convictions. Some people insist upon continued care until the end, while others want only to be checked up on. Many want an ear that is willing to listen. Certain patients continually search for clinical trials or secret elixirs to keep their faith alive, while others take comfort in resigning themselves to what is to come. Respect the viewpoint of the patient and do your best not to superimpose your own desires or beliefs on top of theirs. Remember, this is their time, not yours.

As technology continues to discover new ways to push the limits of our understanding of the workings of the human body, faith in the unknown becomes ever more important, standing as a beacon to highlight the next step in a series of challenges. Not only must medicine and religion be allowed to coexist within a hospital, they must be able to complement one another. Most modern hospitals are big places. Surely there is room for both.

This Emotional Life is a two-year campaign to foster awareness, connections and solutions around emotional wellness. Join our community at www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife.