Medical Miracle... or Just Miracle?

By now, most people have heard about Donald Herbert, the Buffalo fireman who awoke last month after spending 10 years in an "unresponsive" state due to brain injuries he sustained fighting a fire in 1995.

As the story was recounted, Herbert went without oxygen for almost six minutes that tragic night. He remained comatose for two months, and remained silent for the next nine years. When he awoke, he spoke for 16 hours straight, and one of the first things he is reported to have said to a fellow firefighter was, "Do I still have a job?"

In reading this fascinating story about a man who had been for all intents and purposes "asleep" in a nursing home for years but who was now laughing and joking and getting caught up with family, friends, fellow firefighters -- it almost seemed the premise to a sappy movie, maybe starring Tom Hanks, where you can pretty much write the script.

However, because the story is real, we seem almost at a loss as to how to respond. It's a miracle, and so there’s been reports of a possible intercession by Father Nelson Baker, the deceased priest for whom Herbert's nursing home was named. Reports have been circulating that people had prayed that Fr. Baker would intercede and ask God for a miracle to help Herbert. After Herbert’s amazing recovery, he is reported to have told another priest that Fr. Baker "had visited him."

For those who are less inclined to believe in such stories, there’s been a great deal of focus on Dr. Jamil Ahmed, the Pakistan-born doctor who treated Herbert with an experimental combination of drugs that some say "woke" Herbert. The doctor is quick to explain that Herbert's recovery was not that simple.

"The families need to be persistent," Dr. Ahmed said. "This is not an easy game to play... the doctors have to spend more time with the patients. The best idea is to keep working until the patient awakes."

But Ahmed, a Muslim, also said, "I believe God helped me to work with Don and help him, by using different medications to stimulate his brain," he said.

So we have this incredible story, where faith and science seem to have converged. However, we've also recently seen less hopeful stories involving religion. Allegations, since retracted, that U.S. troops flushed a Koran down a toilet to intimidate terror suspects during interrogations, triggered an international outcry and a violent response that resulted in people being killed. As if that episode wasn't bad enough, the fired was fueled by a pastor here in the U.S. who posted a sign outside his church that read, "The Koran needs to be flushed" and said in an interview," "I don’t hate Muslims, I just hate their false doctrines.") In the face of all of this, it is easy to understand why non-church goers can become frustrated with religion.

Yet, Donald Herbert is but one example of how God continues to unfold miracles in the human beings he loves despite our sometimes wicked ways of trying to box him into a particular corner or particular religion. To imagine Don sitting with his friends catching up, you get the sense that God still has the ability to surprise even the most jaded, most cynical.

All this came to mind as I celebrated a Catholic Mass, singing the words to a Protestant hymn: "...thy power throughout the universe displayed! Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee - How Great Thou Art!"

Sure, there are differences among the religions--big differences in how we believe God has revealed himself to us and how we are to respond to that. Yet, whether I am a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim, at the end of my journey when I meet God, what will matter most is how I responded to God’s gift of life. How did I best use this opportunity, this time on his earth with the talents and gifts he has given to me?

As Dr. Ahmed he works simply to help his fellow man-- despite what religion that patient might be--is guided by an idea that he expressed this way: "God will not help you unless you try something...If you try something and if you believe, God may help you."

Another good prescription from the good doctor.

Father Jim Chern is a Roman Catholic priest, ordained in May, 1999 with the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. He is a parish priest at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in West Orange, N.J. He is a 1995 graduate of DeSales University in Center Valley, Pa., and graduated from Arthur L. Johnson Regional High School in Clark, N.J. in 1991.

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