Was One Boy's Unexpected Recovery A Miracle?
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Today on MORNING EDITION, our colleague Barbara Bradley Hagerty told the story of a medical miracle - a miracle, that is, pending investigation by the Catholic Church.
In 2006, five-year-old Jake Finkbonner developed a terrible infection: a flesh-eating bacteria. It spread across his face, destroying his skin.
Dr. CRAIG RUBENS (Seattle Children's Hospital): It's like lighting one end of a parchment paper, and you just watch it spread from that corner very fast, and you're stamping it on one side, and it's flaming up on another.
SIEGEL: Dr. Craig Rubens and his colleagues at Seattle Children's Hospital told Jake's parents that their son would likely die. And here's where the church enters the picture. Jake's family, and ultimately Catholics all around the world, prayed for Jake. And, remarkably, the infection stopped.
Since then, Dr. Rubens, who is a pediatric infectious disease specialist, was one of the people interviewed in the course of a religious investigation. He spoke with a team of priests assigned by the church to determine whether Jake's recovery was a miracle.
And Dr. Craig Rubens joins me now from Seattle. Welcome to the program.
Dr. RUBENS: Hello, Robert.
SIEGEL: And first, let me ask you: How abrupt was the recovery in this case?
Dr. RUBENS: Well, the recovery occurred fairly abruptly after several surgeries and a long course of treatment in our intensive care unit at Seattle Children's Hospital.
SIEGEL: So there was more going on than prayer? There was a great deal of other therapy happening here?
Dr. RUBENS: Absolutely. We were basically throwing everything we could at Jake to try and get this infection under control and to keep him alive, if you will.
SIEGEL: We should say here, I gather you are not a believing Catholic.
Dr. RUBENS: That's correct.
SIEGEL: Have you ever had an experience like this, like the interview by the team from the church who is trying to see whether this reflected the intercessionary powers of a candidate for sainthood in the church?
Dr. RUBENS: I can honestly say I've never gone through that before.
SIEGEL: And what was it like? You know, I guess a variation on rounds, reporting what happened.
Dr. RUBENS: It was very different. As an academic, we oftentimes are constantly challenging each other in our thinking and the literature and the evidence. And they were the consummate professionals. They were going at this in a very regimented, almost evidence-based methodology.
And I can honestly say that I don't think I've ever been in front of a true devil's advocate before.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIEGEL: That's the person who is the one who is arguing against...
Dr. RUBENS: That's right. It was a skeptic in a priest's habit.
SIEGEL: This is where the phrase devil's advocate actually comes from.
Dr. RUBENS: That's right.
SIEGEL: Well, what did you tell them? I mean, were you on guard not to be too much the rational scientist here, not to be too much the non-Catholic in the room, or how candid were you?
Dr. RUBENS: I was very candid. I let them know that - what I felt happened both medically, and I also just let my own feelings about what had happened, because it was such a dramatic case to be involved in, working with Jake and then working with his family, as well, this had an emotional element for every provider that was involved here.
SIEGEL: By the way, if there is a short answer to the question: Why does a bacterial infection stop? Is it because you found the right antibiotic or because - do such infections just run their course and stop? Do antibodies take over and stop the infection? What goes on that would explain that?
Dr. RUBENS: I think the short answer is that it's a collaborative effort. It's the - having the right antibiotics that kill the bacteria, but then there's all the cleanup work, and that's where the human body comes in.
My experience over the last 30 years in taking care of patients is that it goes beyond just the kind of care they get but also how they are thinking about what's happening to them and their feelings of hope or opportunity.
SIEGEL: What do you think about the idea that, for lack of a clearer medical explanation of Jake's recovery, you know, that could strengthen the case that we're talking about divine intervention here?
Dr. RUBENS: Well, I think that that's certainly one perspective that one could take on this. I think that, unfortunately, medicine doesn't have all the answers to certain diseases and why people either survive or don't. And I leave it to the experts in such things as divine intervention to actually determine whether this might qualify.
SIEGEL: Well, Dr. Rubens, thank you very much. Do you foresee being called in on any other Vatican inquiries about recoveries?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. RUBENS: I have yet to get a professional consult request from the pope. But I suppose there's always hope.
SIEGEL: OK. Dr. Rubens, thank you very much.
Dr. RUBENS: All right, Robert, thanks. It was great talking with you.
SIEGEL: That's Dr. Craig Rubens, who is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital. He was talking with us about a meeting of the minds, religious and medical, when he was interviewed by priests who were investigating a potential medical miracle.
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