It was a freezing December day, and two young brothers were playing outside near a swimming pool when the younger boy, a 3-year-old toddler, fell into the water.
The 7-year-old immediately jumped into the pool to save his brother and was able to pull the toddler to the pool steps where the boy’s head was above water. But the icy temperatures overcame the older brother and he drifted underwater.
Paramedics arrived to find both boys unconscious and rushed them to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The younger boy regained consciousness in the ICU and recovered. The 7-year-old, however, was unresponsive and remained in a coma, said Harley Rotbart, MD, a pediatrician and author based in Denver.
Family members stayed at the boy’s bedside and prayed. But after several weeks, the child’s condition remained unchanged. His parents began to discuss ending life support and organ donation. Then late one night, as Rotbart sat reading to the unconscious patient, the little boy squeezed his hand. In disbelief, Rotbart told all of his colleagues about the squeeze the next morning. Everyone attributed the movement to an involuntary muscle spasm, he said. After all, every test and scan showed the boy had no brain function.
But later that day, the child grasped another staff member’s hand. Shortly after that, he squeezed in response to a command. Rotbart and his staff were stunned, but cautious about feeling too much hope.
Days later, the child opened his eyes. Then, he smiled. His parents were overjoyed.
“When he walked out of the hospital more than 2 months after the near-drowning and his heroic rescue of his little brother, we all cheered and cried,” Rotbart wrote in his 2016 book, Miracles We Have Seen. “We cried many times in the weeks preceding, and I still cry whenever I recall this story.”
The experience, which happened years ago when Rotbart was a trainee, has stayed with the pediatrician his entire career.
“His awakening was seemingly impossible — and then it happened,” Rotbart told Medscape. “…Despite being at the forefront of medicine and science, what we don’t understand often exceeds what we do understand. And even when we think we understand, we are frequently proven wrong.”
For many, Rotbart’s experience raises questions about the existence of medical miracles. Although the term can have different definitions, a “medical miracle” generally refers to an unexpected recovery despite a dire prognosis. Frequently, the phrase has a religious connotation and is used to describe a supernatural or paranormal healing.
Do physicians believe in medical miracles? The answers are diverse.
“I have no doubt that extraordinary outcomes happen where patients who are overwhelmingly expected not to survive, do,” says Eric Beam, MD, a hospitalist based in San Diego. “That’s one of the reasons we choose our words very carefully in our conversations with patients and their families and remember that nothing is 0%, and nothing is 100%. But doctors tend to treat situations that are 99.9% as absolute. I don’t think you can practice medicine with the hope or expectation that every case you see has the potential to beat the odds — or be a medical miracle.”
Disappearing Cancer Hailed As “Miracle”
In 2003, physicians projected that Joseph Rick, 40, had just a few months to live. His mucosal melanoma had spread throughout his body, progressing even after several surgeries, radiation therapy, and a combination of chemotherapy agents, recalled Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, an oncologist and director of the Tumor Immunology Program at Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center in Los Angeles.
Rick’s melanoma had spread to his intestines with traces on his stomach and bladder. Tumors were present on his liver, lungs, and pancreas. Rick bought a grave and prepared for the worst, he recounted in a Cancer Research Institute video. But his fate took a turn when he enrolled in an experimental drug trial in December of that year. The phase 1 trial was for a new immune modulating antibody, called an anti-CTLA-4 antibody, said Ribas, who conducted the trial.
Over the next few weeks and months, all areas of Rick’s melanoma metastases disappeared. By 2009, he was in remission. He has lived the rest of his life with no evidence of melanoma, according to Ribas.
Rick’s case has been referenced throughout literature and news stories as a “medical miracle” and a “cancer miracle.”
Does Ribas think the case was a medical miracle?
“The response in Joseph Rick was what happened in 10% to 15% of patients who received anti-CTLA-4 therapy,” Ribas said. “These were not miracles. These patients responded because their immune system trying to attack the cancer had been stuck at the CTLA-4 checkpoint. Blocking this checkpoint allowed their immune system to proceed to attack and kill cancer cells anywhere in the body.”
The scientific basis of this therapy was work by MD Anderson immunologist James Allison, PhD, that had been done 5 years earlier in mouse models, where giving an anti-CTLA-4 antibody to mice allowed them to reject several implanted cancers, Ribas explained. Allison received the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this work, subsequently opening the door for what we now call “immune checkpoint blockade therapy for cancer,” Ribas said.
“We tend to call miracles good things that we do not understand how they happened,” Ribas said. “From the human observation perspective, there have been plenty of medical miracles. However, each one has a specific biological mechanism that led to improvement in a patient. In cancer treatment, early studies using the immune system resulted in occasional patients having tumor responses and long term benefits.
“With the increased understanding of how the immune system interacts with cancers, which is based on remarkable progress in understanding how the immune system works generated over the past several decades, these ‘miracles’ become specific mechanisms leading to response to cancer, which can then be replicated in other patients.”
Patient Defies Odds After 45 Minutes Without Heartbeat
Florida obstetrician-gynecologist Michael Fleischer, MD, had just performed a routine repeat cesarean birth, delivering a healthy baby girl. His patient, Ruby, had a history of high blood pressure but medication taken during the pregnancy had kept her levels stabilized.
In the waiting room, Fleischer informed Ruby’s large family of the good news. He was planning to head home early that day when he heard his name being called over the hospital’s loudspeaker. Ruby had stopped breathing.
“The anesthesiologist was with her and had immediately intubated her,” Fleischer said. “We checked to make sure there was no problems or bleeding from the C-section, but everything was completely fine. However, we couldn’t keep her blood pressure stable.”
Fleischer suspected the respiratory arrest was caused by either an amniotic fluid embolism or a pulmonary embolism. Intubation continued and physicians gave Ruby medication to stabilize her blood pressure. Then suddenly, Ruby’s heart stopped.
Fleischer and other doctors began compressions, which they continued for 30 minutes, Fleischer recalled. They shocked Ruby with defibrillator paddles multiple times, but there was no change.
“I was already thinking, this is hopeless, there’s nothing we can do,” he said. “The writing is on the wall. She’s going to die.”
Fleischer spoke to Ruby’s family and explained the tragic turn of events. Relatives were distraught and tearfully visited Ruby to say their goodbyes. They prayed and cried. Eventually, physicians ceased compressions. Ruby had gone 45 minutes without a pulse.
The EKG was still showing some irregularity, Fleischer said, but no rhythm. Physicians kept Ruby intubated as they waited for the background electrical activity to fade. As they watched the screen in anguish, there was suddenly a blip on the heart rate monitor. Then another and another. Within seconds, Ruby’s heart went back into sinus rhythm.
“We were in disbelief,” Fleischer said. “We did some tests and put her in the ICU, and she was fine. Usually, after doing compressions on anyone, you’d have bruising or broken ribs. She had nothing. She just woke up and said, ‘What am I doing here? Let me go see my baby.’ “
Ruby fully recovered, and 3 days later, she went home with her newborn.
While the recovery was unbelievable, Fleischer stops short of calling it a medical miracle. There were scientific contributors to her survival: she was immediately intubated when she stopped breathing and compressions were started as soon as her heart stopped, he said.
However, Fleischer said the fact that life-saving measures had ended, and Ruby revived on her own was indeed, miraculous.
“It wasn’t like we were doing compressions and brought her back,” he said. “I can scientifically explain things in my mind, except for that. That when we finally stopped and took our hands off her, that’s when something changed. That’s when she came back.”
How Do “Medical Miracles” Impact Physicians?
When Rotbart was writing his book, Miracles We Have Seen, which includes physician essays from across the world, he was struck by how many of the events happened decades earlier.
“This is another testament to the powerful impact these experiences have on those witnessing them,” he said. “In many cases, physicians describing events occurring years ago noted that those early memories served to give them hope as they encountered new, seemingly hopeless cases in subsequent years. Some contributors wrote that the ‘miracle experience’ actually directed them in their choice of specialty and has influenced much of their professional decision-making throughout their careers. Others draw on those miraculous moments at times when they themselves feel hopeless in the face of adversity and tragedy.”
Fleischer said although Ruby’s story has stayed with him, his mindset or practice style didn’t necessarily change after the experience.
“I’m not sure if it’s affected me because I haven’t been in that situation again,” he said. “I’m in the middle. I would never rule out anything, but I’m not going to base how I practice on the hope for a medical miracle.”
In a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, pulmonary and critical care physician, Daniela Lamas, MD, wrote about the sometimes negative effects of miracle cases on physicians. Such experiences for instance, can lead to a greater drive to beat the odds in future cases, Lamas wrote, which can sometimes lead to false hope, protracted critical care admissions, and futile procedures.
“After all, in most cases in the ICU, our initial prognoses are correct,” she writes. “So there’s a risk to standing at the bedside, thinking about that one patient who made it home despite our predictions. We can give that experience too much weight in influencing our decisions and recommendations.” (Attempts to reach Lamas for this story were unsuccessful.)
Beam, the San Diego hospitalist, said unexpected outcomes — particularly in the age of COVID-19 — can certainly make physicians think differently about life-sustaining measures and when to discuss end-of-life care with family members. In his own practice, Beam has encountered unexpected COVID recoveries. Now, he generally gives extremely ill COVID patients a little more time to see if their bodies recover, he said.
“It remains true that people who are really sick with COVID, who are on ventilated or who are requiring a lot of up respiratory support, they don’t do well on average,” he said. “But it is [also] true that there are a handful of people who get to that point and do come back to 80% or 90% of where they were. It makes you think twice.”
What to Do When Parents Hope for a Miracle
In his palliative care practice, Nashville surgeon Myrick Shinall Jr, MD, PhD, regularly encounters families and patients who wish for a medical miracle.
“It happens pretty often from a palliative care perspective,” he said. “What I have experienced the most is a patient with a severe brain injury who we don’t believe is recoverable. The medical team is discussing with the family that it is probably time to discontinue the ventilator. In those situations, families will often talk about wanting us to continue on [our life-sustaining efforts] in the hopes that a miracle will happen.”
Shinall and Trevor Bibler, PhD, recently authored two articles about best practices for responding to patients who hope for a miracle. The first one, published in the American Journal of Bioethics , is directed toward bioethicists; the second article, in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, targets clinicians.
A primary takeaway from the papers is that health professionals should recognize that hope for a miracle may mean different things to different people, says Bibler, an ethicist and assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Some patients may have an innocuous hope for a miracle without a religious connotation, whereas others may have a firm conviction in their idea of God, their spirituality, and a concrete vision of the miracle.
“To hear that a family or patient is hoping for a miracle, one shouldn’t assume they already know what the patient or the family might mean by that,” Bibler said. “If a patient were to say, ‘I hope for a miracle,’ you might ask, ‘What do you mean by a miracle?’ Health professionals should feel empowered to ask that question.”
Healthcare professionals should explore a patient’s hope for a miracle, be nonjudgmental, ask clarifying questions, restate what the patient has said, and delve into the patient’s worldview on death and dying, according to Bibler’s analyses. In some cases, it may be helpful to include a chaplain or the presence of a theology outsider in discussions.
When his patients and their families raise the subject of miracles, Shinall said he inquires what a miracle would look like in their opinion and tries to gauge how much of the assertion is a general hope compared with a firm belief.
“I try to work with them to make sure they understand doctors’ decisions and recommendations are based on what we know and can predict from our medical experience,” he said. “And that there’s nothing we’re going to do to prevent a miracle from happening, but that that can’t be our medical plan — to wait for a miracle.”
Despite the many patients and families Shinall has encountered who hope for a miracle, he has never experienced a case that he would describe as a medical miracle, he said.
Rotbart believes all physicians struggle with finding balance in how far to push in hope of a miracle and when to let go.
“Miracles, whether they happen to us, or we hear of them from colleagues or we read about them, should humble us as physicians,” he said. “…I have come to believe that what we don’t know or don’t understand about medicine, medical miracles, or life in general, isn‘t necessarily cause for fear, and can even be reason for hope.
“Medicine has come a long way since Hippocrates’ theory of The Four Humors and The Four Temperaments, yet we still have much to learn about the workings of the human body. As physicians, we should take comfort in how much we don’t know because that allows us to share hope with our patients and, occasionally, makes medical miracles possible.”
Alicia Gallegos is a reporter for Medscape Business of Medicine based in the Midwest. She has previously written for the American Medical News, the ACP Internist, and the AAMC Reporter. Contact Alicia at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @Legal_med