A Boy, An Injury, A Recovery, A Miracle? The Vatican is delving into the case of a 6-year-old boy in Washington state whose doctors say a flesh-eating bacteria nearly killed him. The Catholic Church is trying to determine whether his recovery is a miracle that can be attributed to a Native American who lived in the 1600s.

A Boy, An Injury, A Recovery, A Miracle?

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John Paul II will be beatified next month. The Vatican says a woman was miraculously healed after she prayed to the late pontiff, which raises the question of what exactly constitutes a miracle and how the Vatican proves it. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty traveled to Ferndale, Washington, where another possible miracle is under investigation.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: February 18, 2006 - that day would change everything for Elsa, Jake and Donny Finkbonner.

Ms. ELSA FINKBONNER: It was the last game of the season, and it was the last minute of the game.

Mr. JAKE FINKBONNER: I was driving for a lay-in and then I got pushed from behind the back, and I hit my lip on the base of the basketball hoop.

Mr. DONNY FINKBONNER: The game ended, you know, and I told him to get some ice cream, you know, get something on that lip. And, you know, I was thinking to myself, well, it's his first big fat lip.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: But overnight, Jake, who was about to turn six, developed a raging fever. His entire face swelled. A day later, he was in the hospital.

Mr. D. FINKBONNER: I walked in the room, my heart sank when I saw his face. And he said, hi, daddy, but he couldn't see me 'cause his eyes were swollen shut.

(Soundbite of hospital)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: At the trauma unit at Seattle Children's Hospital, Craig Rubens, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, instantly suspected a flesh-eating bacteria called strep A. It was consuming Jake's face with terrifying speed.

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.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Dr. Richard Hopper, chief of plastic surgery at Seattle Children's, had never seen a case so dire.

Dr. RICHARD HOPPER (Seattle Children's Hospital): It's almost as if you could watch it moving in front of your eyes. The redness and the swelling - we would mark it and within the hour it would have spread another half-inch.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Hopper turns his computer and displays gruesome photos charting the bacteria's steady march from Jake's lips to his cheeks to his scalp to his forehead. Each day surgeons removed more of his skin to get ahead of the infection.

Dr. HOPPER: The infection was like it had a life of its own.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The doctors told Jake's parents several times that their son would probably die. Elsa Finkbonner called a Catholic priest, who gave the boy his last rites.

Ms. FINKBONNER: Donny and I went off to the chapel and just surrendered Jake back to God, and just said, God, he is yours. Thy will be done, and if it is your will to take him home, then so be it.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: They also prayed desperately for a miracle.

Father TIM SAUER (St. Joseph's Catholic Church): Things were looking so grim for Jake that we needed all the prayers we could get.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's their priest, Father Tim Sauer. And because Jake is half Lummi Indian, Sauer urged parishioners at St. Joseph's Catholic Church to appeal to a woman who lived 350 years ago.

Father SAUER: I encouraged people to ask for the intercession of Blessed Kateri.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Kateri Tekakwitha was a Mohawk who converted to Catholicism. Her face was scarred by smallpox. But legend has it when she died her scars vanished. She was beatified in 1980, the first step toward sainthood. Father Sauer says Kateri was the perfect intercessor for Jake.

Father SAUER: We're talking about two people who come from Native American ancestry. We're talking about a person who herself suffered from a disease which disfigured her face.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Thanks the Internet, hundreds of people around the world began praying to Kateri. A representative of the Society of Blessed Kateri visited Jake as he hovered between life and death. She gave his mother a relic, a pendant with Kateri's image on it. Elsa Finkbonner placed it on her son's pillow.

Ms. FINKBONNER: That was the last day that his disease progressed. And the next morning when they had taken him in for surgery, that was when they told us the news that it had finally stopped.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Surgeon Richard Hopper remembers the moment.

Dr. HOPPER: All of a sudden, to have this infection stop is almost like a geyser coming out of the earth with this great roar - and all of a sudden just stop and everything. There's this silence and everybody's just a little bit stunned by it being over.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Jake went home after two months. Now, five years later, doctors are rebuilding his face, little by little. Dr. Rubens says it's one of the most amazing recoveries he's seen. Elsa Finkbonner goes further.

Ms. FINKBONNER: There's just no question in my mind that it was in fact a miracle.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: But does the Catholic Church believe it is? To qualify as an authentic miracle, the Vatican has to determine that Jake's recovery was unexplainable and that it occurred because people prayed to Kateri to intercede with God on Jake's behalf.

Father Paul Pluth, who's coordinating an investigation into Jake's recovery, says that would suggest that Kateri has special access to God.

Father PAUL PLUTH (Priest): That means we have received assurances that this person now stands in heaven before the throne of God. And one of the evidences for that has been miracles of healing.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: These days the bar is pretty high.

Father PETER GUMPEL (Priest): The Catholic Church has many hundreds - even thousands - of saints, and the idea is not to get more.

Father Peter Gumpel is a Jesuit priest in Rome who has investigated more than 100 potential miracles for the Vatican. He says the church dismisses about 95 percent of the miracle petitions it receives. There are many hoops to jump through - interrogating witnesses, examining medical records, calling on medical specialists and theologians, and finally, years later, presenting the evidence to the pope.

Mr. GUMPEL: It has to be rigorous, because we do not want to submit to the pope a statement unless we are absolutely morally certain that this case merits to be approved by him as a miracle by God.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: So investigators in Seattle are putting Jake Finkbonner's extraordinary recovery on trial. For more than three years, a team of priests has collected documents and interviewed witnesses. There's a lawyer, a priest with medical training and a skeptic, the so-called promoter of justice.

Bishop EUSEBIO ELIZONDO (Archdiocese of Seattle): In old times he used to be called the devil's advocate.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Eusebio Elizondo tries to find holes in the case.

Bishop ELIZONDO: I'm trying to really push every single witness to tell, really, are you sure? Are you positive that there is no other way to explain this, that - you know, logical explanation or a scientific explanation or it was just pure coincidence or whatever it was?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The panel interviewed each doctor for more than an hour, asking details about Jake's condition, his recovery after each surgery, fatality rates. They asked nothing about miracles. Dr. Rubens says they were the consummate professionals.

Dr. RUBENS: They took a very hard look at whether this really was something beyond what they described as the wonders of modern medicine.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Of course you can't prove a miracle, says Dr. Rubens, and clearly Jake received the best medical care possible. Still, he does believe the family's faith was crucial.

Dr. RUBENS: What Jake survived was truly remarkable, and I can't explain why he would survive over someone else.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: So was Jake's recovery due to the intercession of Kateri Tekakwitha? That's for the pope to decide, perhaps years from now.

Elsa Finkbonner thinks Kateri does deserve to have Catholicism's highest honor.

Ms. FINKBONNER: It would be disappointing if she doesn't become a saint. But I'm happy to celebrate Jake's 11th birthday. So I'll take it.

(Soundbite of whistle blowing)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Today, Jake is back on the basketball court, despite nearly 30 surgeries. He's a little famous in this town and his story is also making the rounds of the Vatican - a story of a boy who nearly died and the recovery that may be declared a miracle.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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