A Miracle or a Mystery?

In my book Miracles I mentioned that doctors are typically skeptical of miracle stories. One reason is that they see weird stuff happen–people getting better who shouldn’t, people dying who shouldn’t. I just got this from Dr. David Graham, a physician who works in Ecuador. Better than anything I’ve seen, it describes the weird and wonderful that a doctor can occasionally see.

Opinion among doctors around the world is divided on the issue of healing miracles.  Our ideas of what constitutes natural versus supernatural healing are heavily influenced by our world views.  I don’t know of any atheist doctors who believe in miracles, yet even among God-believing physicians there is no general agreement as to what constitutes a miracle, let alone whether they occur.  If we take, for example, the issue of spontaneous regression of cancer (a well documented phenomenon, which I wrote about in June of 2002, “Medicine’s Mysteries”), we can say that it has been proven to occur.  It is a fact.  Is it a “miracle”?  It depends on whom you ask, for some would say yes and others, no.  Cases of spontaneous regression of cancer occur among people of differing religious and philosophical beliefs, with and without prayer.

(I have seen one such case myself: a woman from the Ecuadorian jungle whose melanoma was destroying her left leg, swollen to twice the size of her right leg from this aggressive skin cancer which had entered the lymph nodes in her inguinal region.  I had performed a surgical biopsy to remove a few of those lymph nodes, so there was no doubt about the diagnosis, for the pathologist confirmed it by looking at the surgical specimens.  Nor was there doubt that much disease remained in her body following the biopsy.  The woman went back to the jungle and never came back for follow-up.  Two years later, however, she accompanied another patient to the clinic.  I happened to recognize her and asked how she was doing.  She said she was fine.  She showed me her left leg: it was no longer swollen.  In fact, was now the same size as her right leg.  The scars from the surgical incisions were easily visible, but what had disappeared were the massive tumors of melanoma in her left inguinal region – they had “gone with the wind.”  I was pleasantly surprised and dutifully impressed.)

So on the topic of miracles, we recently had a case here in Shell that has left me stupefied.  An 84 year old woman suffered a fall in her house in June of this year.  She came to our hospital complaining of left shoulder pain and was found to have fractured the head of her left humerus.  Our orthopedic doctor took her to the operating room and there inserted three long nails in her left shoulder to stabilize the fracture.  (They were Kirschner pins, one about three inches long and the other two about 4 inches/10 centimeters in length.)  The surgery went fine and she went home the next day.  A week later she was in the clinic for a post-operative check-up, where an x-ray confirmed that the nails were in good position.  She began to have sessions of physical therapy to help with left arm movement.

Here is where the story gets weird.  Four days later, the patient came back to the clinic for a scheduled appointment to have her left shoulder pins taken out.  Mysteriously, the orthopedic doc could only find one of the three he had placed.  He took it out, wondering where the other two were.

A month later, she had a little more movement in her left arm.  There seemed to be a small knot under her left clavicle that was thought to be a partially torn left pectoralis muscle tendon.  A week and a half later she came to the outpatient clinic for another check-up, this time complaining of a knot on the right lower neck.  It was a little more than an inch (3 cm) in diameter and thought to represent a swollen lymph node.  She was placed on antibiotics and told to come back in four days.  When she did, nothing had changed.  So the surgeon injected some local anesthetic and then opened the skin on her right lower neck.  There was only some clear fluid, like the kind seen from lymph drainage.

One week later, with the orthopedic surgeon out of town, the patient and her family showed up at our emergency room at night…with one of the nails sticking out – in a Frankenstein manner – from the base of her right neck.  X-rays in two positions showed that one of her two lost nails was over the sternum (breast bone) and the other was crossing the neck from the left to the right side.  A CT scan taken some time later showed the neck nail to be crossing in between the esophagus and trachea (!!) and just behind her right carotid artery and jugular vein!

Pulling the nail – which had a slight hook on one end – would require surgery in order to not do any damage to the vital structures in her neck.  As she was stable, the surgery was scheduled for the next day.  The next morning, shortly before this 84 year old was to go to the operating room for general anesthesia and a tricky surgery, she turned her neck, moved her body, and – “plop” – out came the nail on its own.  It had migrated out of the bone from her left arm, entered her neck, crossed behind the left carotid artery and jugular vein, crossed between the trachea and the esophagus, crossed just behind the right carotid artery and jugular vein, and exited the right side of her neck…with no human guidance.

The other nail had also exited the left humerus, had crossed underneath the left breast, stayed outside of the chest cavity, and was lodged over the sternum.  With local anesthesia and a small skin incision, the nail was extracted at the patient’s bedside.  She went home smiling.

So, am I dumbfounded by what happened?  Yes.  Do I have any kind of natural explanation for it, something from the worlds of anatomy, physiology, physics, or engineering that could reasonably account for what happened here?  No.  I have none.  I can guess that her decreased bone density and increased left arm movement with physical therapy had something to do with the nails leaving the bone, but for the rest I am completely mystified.  Sure, there are many reports in the medical literature of foreign objects that migrate in the body…but not like this.  I know of no medical reports where two long pins in the left arm – anchored in bone – could over a period of merely two months migrate out of the bone, cross the body, and end up over the sternum and out the right side of the neck, all the while avoiding injury to the vital structures nearby.  It’s as though the nails had eyes…

What are we to call what happened?  Was it a miracle?  Well, miracles are usually accomplished through the medium of a religious person: someone who implores divine help in order to achieve a desired supernatural effect in the natural world.

In this case, however, there was no one praying for this to happen.  Moreover, what happened went against the wishes of all involved: the optimal outcome would have been to have the three nails remain embedded in the left humerus until it was time to easily remove them in the clinic, as opposed to disappearing, migrating across the body, causing physical discomfort to the patient, instigating two minor surgical procedures, and worrying the patient, her family, and the medical staff.  There was potential for great harm (including death), high medical bills, and a lawsuit.  More than anything, when the problem was solved, all parties felt relieved.

I can say that this was bizarre.  I can say that this was phenomenal.  I can say that this was a mystery.  I can say I have no natural explanation for this.

But was it a miracle?  A miracle is usually performed by a holy man in order to relieve human suffering and give glory to God.  This bizarre incident caused human suffering…and left people shaking their heads.

Acts 14:3 uses the phrase “signs and wonders” to describe the work of miracle workers Paul and Barnabas in the city of Iconium, Galatia (in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey).  I have to admit, if what happened to this lady was a sign, then I have no idea how to interpret it.

But it surely was a wonder.


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2 Responses to “A Miracle or a Mystery?”

  1. Miracle Stories | Leadingchurch.com Says:

    […] From Tim Stafford’s Blog: Miracle or Mystery […]

  2. PaulVK Says:

    The reverse is also worth pondering. What do we call it when someone dies unexpectedly and completely apart from what seems to be the normal course of events? Ananias and Sapphira of course come to mind. If our grasp at perceiving and explaining is this tenuous, how much more our grasp at control?

    Thanks for the fine book and the blog. pvk

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