During the time I was in medical school in Minneapolis, the renown faith healer, Kathryn Kuhlman, held a healing crusade at the Minneapolis Auditorium. At the time I was merely puzzled; what she did seemed to have nothing to do with what I was trying to learn. Six months later a journalist for the Star and Tribune published follow-up interviews with those who had claimed to be healed at the crusade. Less than two percent had any lasting physical benefit. To be fair, the journalist also reported that even those who did not have measurable improvements in their physical maladies somehow felt better. I concluded that the faith healing experience was a placebo effect, harmless but ineffectual.
A few years later I became more hostile.
A patient I’ll call Debbie, a twenty-seven year-old dental hygienist, came to see me because she was quite sure that she must have a slipped disk–her left leg wasn’t working right. Bright and cheery with a perfect smile, she told me she had friends who had gotten weak legs from slipped disks. She needed it fixed quickly because between her job and two small children she couldn’t be slowed by a clumsy leg.
Some things–the lack of pain and the progressive weakness–nagged at me even before I examined her. Then, on her examination, although what she had noted about her left leg was true–loss of coordination–she had ignored or not noticed the loss of coordination in her left arm as well. Her reflex pattern pointed to a problem in her brain, not her spine.
“We need to rule out another problem,” I said. “I’ll arrange a scan of your head today.” I suspected a tumor, but hoped I was wrong.
A few days later Debbie had surgery for a tumor called a glioblastoma. The surgery went as well as it could go for a malignant tumor–no worsening of her weakness, no dangerous brain swelling, no infections. Everything was good except the prognosis: roughly a year with radiation and chemotherapy, about four months with surgery alone.
She had small children; she chose radiation and chemotherapy.
The day after I gave her the prognosis and told her about radiation and chemotherapy options, I entered her hospital room as a minister was leaving. His card and a New Testament lay on the tray-table. Good for her, I thought. Time to be prepared for heaven. And perhaps a community of good-hearted people would surround her family in their time of need.
As the months went by Debbie lost her hair and her cheery disposition. Although always polite, she became a stoic warrior. Complications due to her treatments led to hospitalizations for bone marrow suppression and consequent infections. Her left-sided coordination problems progressed to disabling hemiplegia.
As medical miracles failed her, she turned to religion. A new Bible and Christian books appeared on her bedside table. Gospel music played from the radio. The television broadcast evangelists’ sermons. More cards from more clergymen appeared at her bedside.
She lost the ability to speak. I would come by to see her each day she was on the oncology ward and, lacking any material skills to help, hold her hand for a few moments before moving on. Sometimes she would meet my eyes, sometimes not.
One day near the end, I held her hand and let my emotions wash over me: sadness, anger at her disease, the frustration at my own ability to make such little difference, and helplessness. Her eyes were closed, her expression pained. I squeezed her hand and she squeezed back. I asked if she needed pain medicine; she shook her head. The radio, tuned to a Christian station, played this message:
“The doctors told her she had cancer,” the voice said in a Texas accent. “They told her she couldn’t be cured. But if she wanted to live a little longer she had to go to a big hospital in Houston.
“Well, I tell you, my friends, she got in that car and they started driving to Houston. But she didn’t make it. No, sir. She had a message from God just as clear as if she had a telephone call. She heard this radio station. She heard me talking to folks like I’m talking to you all now. And she knew she could go home.
“Because, if you have enough faith in the Lord Jesus, if you turn your heart to him in earnest prayer, you will be healed. Yes, I said, ‘Will,’ not might. No maybe about this folks. It’s there in the Bible. It’s your blessing to be claimed.
“She called me up and we started praying. Two months later she went in to see her doctor. Well, you can believe he was mighty surprised. He thought she would be dead by then, I suppose.
” ‘Did you go to Houston?,’ he said to her.
” ‘Why no,’ she said, ‘I started praying.’
“I know I don’t have to tell you folks this. You already know the end of the story, don’t you? When she did go to that big hospital in Houston those doctors never could find a single sign of cancer.
“She was cured and you could be, too. If you only have enough trust in the Lord Jesus. Call me, write to me, send your donations to…”
Debbie could’t tell me what she was thinking about herself in relation to this story; I could only imagine. Debbie had fought valiantly for her life, for her children as much as for herself, and now lay dying while someone who didn’t know her told that her the only reason for her death was her lack of faith.
I released her hand, brushed the hair from her face and turned off the radio, certain God didn’t work that way. Jesus wouldn’t tell her she wasn’t good enough.
So for fifteen years I didn’t pray for patients to be healed. I didn’t believe it worked. And, if they didn’t get better, I didn’t want them to feel like they died for lack of faith.
Then I found myself in the Philippines on my first mission trip. I carried a backpack with first-aid supplies and felt totally alien. Evangelism classes for the local church were the focus of the week, but a “healing crusade” was the climax on Friday night.
In the largest building (a basketball gym with bleachers) in this village outside Davao City, hundreds of people packed in to hear preaching and praise music. One man came in carried in a chair by his children. I recognized the signs of a major right hemisphere stroke and, by his obvious contractures, it must have occurred at least six weeks previously. No way, I thought to myself, no way is this guy getting healed. That brain is damaged beyond repair. I’ve seen it hundreds of times.
Ministers spoke in tongues. People “fell out” in the Spirit. Then people came forward for healing. They lined up in front other members of the mission team and local pastors. Then some lined up in front of me. I felt inadequate; I felt like a fraud. But I put my hands on people’s heads and hearts and feet, wherever they were in pain, listening but not understanding them, and prayed as well as I could.
Then I looked up and two men set down the chair holding the man with the stroke. They expected a miracle; I did not. But I laid my hands on his head and prayed that I was wrong and this unfortunate man would get up and walk. As I expected, nothing happened.
Then my friend, Jerry Winkler, too ignorant of medical signs to be timid, also came, laid his hands on the stroke victim and cried out to God for healing. Crazy, I thought.
Then the guy got up out of his chair and limped to the stage to thank Jesus and the lead pastors.
Okay. He wasn’t completely whole. But he got carried in and he walked out. A couple years later, the pastor who had organized the healing crusade visited the U.S. I asked him about this man with the stroke. He’s driving a bus now, he told me.
Did neurons regenerate and form new synaptic connections? Would a follow-up CT scan post prayer showed resolved stroke areas? Or was it a placebo effect and the guy got enough hope to rehabilitate his disability?
I don’t know. All I know is a guy with a stroke was carried in, got a prayer, walked out, and now he drives a bus.
And now I had a decision. Should I hang on to what I thought I knew? Or should I open my heart and believe my eyes?