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Medical Science vs. Medical Miracles

By Randall Fitzgerald / Source: Skeptical Examiner

When mainstream Western physicians try to explain medical 'miracles' that come cloaked in religious symbolism, or that were inspired by rituals of superstition, the self-described atheists among them sometimes find themselves challenged by a personal crisis of faith in their own ultra-rationalist belief system.

British physician Richard Westcott confessed to confronting this dilemma in an article for the British Medical Journal in 2002, headlined "Can miracles happen?" in which he related the story of an astonishing recovery by one of his patients who had been diagnosed with an incurable type of cancer.

This patient, who Dr. Westcott identified only by the first name of Jim, had worked as a submarine engineer and as a consequence, had come into contact with asbestos commonly used in pipes. He developed a swollen right breast and several biopsies established a firm tissue diagnosis of mesothelioma, which contact with asbestos is known to cause.

The tumor had grown quickly until it was working its way through Jim's chest wall. Such malignant tumors were invariably fatal. "Radiotherapy hardly checked its progress," reported Dr. Westcott, "and Jim was deteriorating badly."

Not knowing how much longer he had to live, Jim's wife, Sally, a retired nurse, bought the two of them tickets for a vacation on the Mediterranean island of Kefallinia. While touring the island they visited a monastery where an elderly nun had, as Dr. Westcott related, "abruptly singled out Jim" and inquired about his illness. Sally was unwilling to say much, but told her that he had cancer.

Dr. Westcott continues the story: "They were met by a priest, who asked Jim to go down into a cave where a holy man used to live. Jim was too weak to negotiate the steep narrow steps. Then they found themselves inside the church. The priest opened what seemed like -- and smelt like, added Sally -- a sarcophagus. There was a confused business of kissing of old rags, sprinkling of water and mumbling, and then after an uncertain time they were outside again. This time, Jim was surprised to find he could go down the steps, and climb back up again. Since then, each day he had just felt stronger and better."

Jim and Sally returned to Britain and Dr. Westcott examined him and discovered, to his shock and consternation, that Jim's cancer had undergone "a sudden and deep remission." What particularly perplexed him, as Dr. Westcott explained to his fellow physicians and journal readers, was that Jim and Sally "are both pretty hardboiled, and not religious. Here was no believing couple: they had little faith in general."

Both of them admitted to Westcott how they were "gobsmacked," as Jim put it, and unable to comprehend what had happened inside the church, or how something they did not believe in could have affected the course of Jim's disease. But none of these unbelievers, Westcott included, could scoff at what the doctor called "such an undeniable, positive result."

Even if Jim's sudden turnaround turned out to be a temporary remission from cancer and not a cure, Westcott still marveled at how this too, constituted a sort of miracle. He had no other terminology, no other frame of reference, with which to describe a phenomenon so contrary to his training and to his rational belief system, so he promptly "took refuge in my role as a clinical scientist, talking about things like the body's remarkable and unpredictable powers, spontaneous remission, the delayed effects of therapy, and the benefits of a well timed holiday."

Yet, at some level of awareness, these explanations -- or rationalizations -- must have felt to Westcott like his own peculiar form of denial, since he eventually chose to express his need to share this experience with his profession by writing the report as a sort of inquiring confession, as if addressed to a therapist… or a priest. "Can miracles happen if you don't ask for, or expect them, let alone believe in them?" asked Dr. Westcott. "How do (or should) I, an atheist doctor, respond?"

An outpouring of responses

His journal report generated numerous letters to the editors of the British Medical Journal and these observations by fellow physicians, writing from six different countries, proved almost as interesting as the original case study. They were surprisingly and overwhelmingly supportive of the idea that 'medical miracles' can and do happen outside the parameters of known science.

"Some things can't be proved by random double blind controlled trials or other scientific proof," wrote Susan E. Kersley, a retired British doctor. "There are miracles which can happen to each of us if sometimes we allow our 'inner voice' to connect with others and listen to unspoken messages… Yes, miracles happen. Listen and look from our hearts rather than our heads to see them."

A dermatologist from Massachusetts, David J. Elpern, wrote to say that science studies tend to exclude patients like Jim, but "it is from these individuals that we can learn the secret for beating the odds… Many years ago, I witnessed a similar remarkable recovery of a young woman with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma… by not investigating the 'miracles' we are losing an opportunity to really understand them."

A similar theme was echoed by Judy C. Pellatt, a clinical trials practitioner at a hospital in Portsmouth, England, who reminded readers that "anyone familiar with Lourdes will know that 'miracles' do happen… however, to associate Lourdes only with physical cures is to miss the point. It is overwhelmingly a place of spiritual awareness and development, and that is much harder to define and quantify."

There were also doubters who raised some provocative questions. An official with Britain's Leukaemia Research Fund, Kenneth Campbell, pointed out how the 66 accredited miracle cures associated with Lourdes represent a tiny percentage of the millions of visitors to the shrine, especially given that most of them may have prayed, if not for their own recovery, then for someone else's cure and recovery. "If these cures are truly miraculous," wondered Campbell, "can anyone propose by what criteria such a miniscule percentage are chosen by God to be favoured above other, seemingly equally deserving supplicants."

Is religion just a placebo?

Retired London physician Anthony Campbell found the dialogue surrounding Westcott's article so compelling that he wrote a well-reasoned essay and posted it to his website. "Skeptics who are confronted with cases of this kind generally take refuge in two kinds of objection: either the original diagnosis was wrong or the cure was due to the conventional treatment the patient had received previously. Neither of these seems likely to apply in the present case, nor in a number of others. So does this mean that we must accept that divine intervention, or at least paranormal healing, is a reality? Do miracles really occur? Cases like that reported by Dr. Westcott certainly provide food for thought, but before accepting them as proof positive of the miraculous, I think we need to look a little more closely at what they actually tell us."

After examining 15 relatively recent medical journal reports about spontaneous cancer remissions, Campbell concluded that such cases are "well authenticated outside of a religious context." He further observed that cancer cures "are not necessarily miraculous. They lie within the boundaries of the natural world." What would be genuinely miraculous, from his point of view, would be the regrowth of an amputated finger or limb, or if eyesight were restored in a person who lost their sight from glaucoma.

"If as seems likely the immune system is involved in spontaneous remissions of cancer, the known influence of the nervous system on the immune system could explain why the patient's beliefs and emotional state might on occasion bring about a remission," commented Campbell. "The fact that a patient had no conscious expectation of cure (as in the case reported by Dr. Westcott) does not negate a possible influence of this kind. A believer in miracles could argue that even apparently spontaneous remissions are really miraculous. Perhaps God works his miracles through 'normal' physiological pathways rather than by suspending the ordinary laws of physiology, and perhaps he refrains from curing glaucoma and regenerating amputated limbs in order to keep us guessing, or because he does not want to force our belief. This is logically possible but unverifiable and so can be neglected in a scientific context."

Where that leads me is to the suspicion that one does not need to believe in a particular religion or spiritual tradition, or even in the existence of God at all, for miraculous cures to occur, as Mitchell May's experience (recounted in a previous column) and countless others probably demonstrate.

But there is evidence that possessing strong faith can amplify a healing signal. Even if religious faith turns out to be proven some day as nothing more than a placebo, it remains an effective and powerful tool for recovery, providing wondrous advantages should the human will or spirit otherwise prove deficient to the healing task.

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