This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 17, Issue 1, from 2004.
Public interest in ‘healing’ knows no bounds. The alternative medicine industry is vastly prosperous, and the range of therapeutic absurdities is endless. Respectable members of the medical profession, who have at least a working familiarity with the issues of medical science, all too easily become caught up in it.
Already this year a GP has been disciplined by the General Medical Council for determining a homeopathic therapy for a child with gastroenteritis, using a suspended crystal as a dowsing instrument. The hint of redness in the child’s hair provided extra evidence that phosphorus was the appropriate element to use (or not use, if it is diluted out of existence!). The fact that there is no credible scientific evidence for homeopathy, crystal therapy or dowsing seemed irrelevant to the practitioner, who was herself suspended by the GMC in an attempt to rid the medical profession of madness.
For all the magic, few of these alternative therapies hold out any hope of miraculous cure. Miracles are largely the preserve of the religious, and particularly the Christians. There have been few famous miracle workers in history. Most of those found outside the pages of the Bible owe their inspiration to those inside the Bible, the most notable, of course, being Christ himself. For many people, the word ‘miracle’ is itself a shorthand for ‘the type of extraordinary healings that Jesus did’.
The pages of the Gospels describe numerous miraculous cures. They share a number of features in common. They were generally speaking instantaneous events, usually happening at a word of command. The physical illnesses described were incurable then and now, e.g. congenital blindness, a fixed curvature of the spine, a wasted and paralysed hand, deaf-mutism, even death itself. They were not the sort of psychosomatic conditions that commonly respond to alternative medicines. The healings were reported to have been complete and lasting. There is no suggestion that they were remitting diseases that recovered for only a limited period of time. Finally, of course, no other effective treatment was on offer.
While it may be difficult to define a miracle, certain characteristics, i.e. instantaneous, at a word of command; complete; cures of incurable diseases that could not spontaneously remit and where no other effective treatment was given, at least help us to describe a miracle, so that we might know one, if ever we saw one!
Why might we expect to see one? Well, considerable numbers of people claim they are happening all over the world today. They include intelligent people and even some members of the medical profession. Stories of such events have great appeal and spread like wildfire, especially if they have some sort of medical testimony to support them.
Examination of such stories, however, is less than straightforward. It is not easy to gain permission from the patient to have access to their confidential, medical data. In many parts of the world, there are no medical data to be obtained. Furthermore, if one story is exposed for being less than it is cracked up to be, ten other stories are immediately put forward to fill the void. Only a hardened cynic, it seems, could reject the flood of so many apparently compelling tales!
Finding a way through this avalanche requires an effective strategy. I believe I have found one. Instead of asking for examples, I invite whoever is making the claims to produce their best case. This is very telling. Immediately the great mass of healings can be put to one side. Rather than the investigator having the temerity to identify the most remarkable cases, healers can use all their knowledge and experience to select the best. The case to be examined is the case the healer (or claimer) puts forward. An improvement on this approach is to ask for their three best cases, so that no one can claim that an unfortunate choice has invalidated the inquiry.
To present a selection of three best cases is a challenge indeed. However, to the extent that these healers believe their own propaganda, they are likely to respond positively. Many healers have already published their selection in a ‘best selling’ book promoting their activity. Others are selected by the media, and promoted in newspapers and on television. For an investigation to take place, the subjects must of course give their signed consent for their medical records to be seen by others. To withhold such consent, of course, does nothing for their credibility.
Consider the recent story of Dr Mary Self recounted in a book of which she is a co-author (Self & Chaytor, 2001). On any level, it is one of the most impressive miracle stories of recent years. As a psychiatrist, she tells her story with the authority of someone who understands scientific medicine. She is young, attractive, medical – and cured.
As a teenager, Mary developed a rare tumour of her leg. Its nature was not well understood. It is now, some 20 years later, thought to have been a rare tumour called a mesenchymal chondrosarcoma. It was clear at the time of onset that the therapeutic options were very limited; an above-knee amputation held out the best hope of a cure. Showing considerable perseverance, Mary picked herself up from this dreadful blow and went on to study medicine.
Seventeen years later, when she might reasonably have thought she was long since cured of her disease, she was devastated to find she had a recurrence in the form of a secondary tumour in her lung. Against the odds, this was successfully removed by surgery. The histology of the tumour matched with the original and led to a careful revision of the histological diagnosis of both leg and lung tumours.
By now, Mary was married, had two young children and was training to become a psychiatrist. The emotional tension of her story is palpable! Within a year of her lung surgery, she now developed pain in her pelvis. CAT and isotope scanning revealed a shadow on her pelvic bone, which her doctors assumed was a further metastasis. Her prognosis was bleak. A former Catholic, and now a Baptist, Dr Self sought prayer from her many friends and contacts.
Further investigations were arranged to follow the course of this ‘shadow’ and help clarify decisions as to whether any further treatment should be attempted. Subsequent scanning, however, showed that the shadow had actually decreased in size! Over the next few months, it had disappeared completely. An estimated 10,000 people around the world had been encouraged to pray for her healing. Their prayers, it seems, were answered in an astonishing way, though not, it should be said, in the instantaneous manner of the New Testament miracles.
According to her book, written jointly with a tabloid journalist, Dr Self told her surgeon that she believed it was a miracle. He replied, “I will buy that.” He is quoted on the dust cover as saying, “I have been a consultant for 11 years and have not seen a case like it.” But what did he mean? Did he really think this was a miracle of the type reported in the Gospels, or was he saying he was lost for an adequate explanation and shared her great joy in being free of disease? In the confidential environment of a consulting room, where the doctor tries to sit alongside his patient in friendship and support, many a doctor has used words that should not be taken outside of that context. What did he really think?
The book does not report his further comments. However, the book’s co-author, Rod Chaytor, wrote a double-page feature article about the healing of Mary Self in the Daily Mirror (Chaytor, 1999). There he recorded the surgeon as saying:
She is saying it is a miracle. I am saying it is unexplained. It is important to say we do not have proof this was a metastasis in the pelvis. Everyone assumed it was on the basis of the scans.
A biopsy had in fact been performed. The book describes the anguish associated with this, and the build up to the meeting with her surgeon when she would be told the result (p. 239). In the emotion of it, the reader is left to believe it was malignant. She states for instance, “It has been confirmed three times now” (p. 240). However, the text of the book fails to offer a clear statement to this effect from the surgeon. In the Daily Mirror article, however, Mr Chaytor reported that the biopsy did not confirm a metastasis and that the specialist believed the scans “weren’t completely consistent” with a secondary. Why did he not include these statements in the book? Can the answer be that they undermine the whole story? What has Mary Self been healed of? It seems that we do not know.
I was invited by BBCTV to comment on her case. I accepted on the condition that Dr Self gave me written permission to clarify these details with her surgeon. It was thought that I was being unnecessarily fussy to insist on signed consent. However, previous investigations of miracle claims, that did not produce the desired results, have led to threats of High Court action against me and complaints to the General Medical Council. Nothing short of a signed statement of con-sent from Dr Self would induce me to contact her surgeon and, I trust, nothing less would be required for him to speak candidly with me. Time and again, I have learned that there is no substitute for having direct access to the medical evidence when investigating such claims and that can only be done with secured permission. However, despite three requests, and numerous reassurances from the BBC, it became apparent that she would not agree and the interview was cancelled.
It seems to me that if the person claiming to be healed is not prepared to let the story be properly investigated, they should not be prepared to publicise it either. There seems to me no moral justification for them to both ‘have their cake and eat it’.
Notwithstanding this, the programme went ahead (Heaven and Earth, shown on BBC1, 5 January 2003). It was introduced not only as a story “which has no rational explanation” but also as a miracle claim, which has “the physical proof to back it up”. The televised account was inevitably abbreviated, but in so doing compressed and confused separate events. Dr Self spoke of her amputation and said, “seventeen years later my cancer relapsed.” This was quite true, and a proven secondary was successfully removed from her lung. This, however, was not mentioned apart from the fact that she had to embark on further treatment. What we were told instead is that the tumour in her leg was followed 17 years later by a ‘tumour’ in her pelvis. The surgeon confirmed that her doctors feared the worst but did not embark on further treatment.
However, they were astonished to find that this new shadow on her pelvis gradually disappeared. There was no mention of the fact that an attempt was made to biopsy it or that the biopsy did not confirm a malignancy. Nor was there any comment to suggest that its appearance was in any way atypical. Whether or not it looked like a tumour, ‘physical proof ’, it seems, was not established.
Her story is certainly unusual. As Prof. Chris French said in the television programme, spontaneous remissions of proven tumours do happen, although they are extremely rare events. Interestingly, some types of tumour are more likely to remit than others. Not enough is known about this particular cancer to say just how unlikely it would be. Unlike Christ’s miracles, remissions are always gradual. Since her rare tumour has already raised its ugly head after so many years in the form of a lung secondary, no-one can confidently say she is now cured. Whether the shadow in her pelvis was also a tumour remains unproven.
The book itself makes tiresome reading. It describes the endless roller-coaster ride of her emotions, with overwhelming despair, rather than faith, exhausting the reader at every set back. Most disappointing was the failure, both in the book and on television, to be clear and straightforward about the crucial, medical details of this story.
Self, M., & Chaytor, R. (2001). From medicine to miracle. London: Harper Collins.Chaytor, R. (1999). Healed with prayer. Daily Mirror, December.
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From the archive, Peter May questions the remarkable healing of Dr Mary Self.
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