COVER STORY:Medical miracles

Eighty winters ago, while walking along the snowy streets of the Bronx, 5-year-old Judah Kamil caught a nasty cold. It soon turned into pneumonia, which then became blood poisoning.

His physicians could do nothing.

The infection attacked the left hip and with terrifying speed began eating away at the child’s tiny pelvis and femur. The doctor told Kamil’s mother the only way to save her son’s fast-fading life was to cut off his leg.

Rising up from grief and shock, she faced the doctors and said, “I don’t want him on a street corner selling apples for the rest of his life. He either lives with his leg or he dies.”

Kamil’s father contacted a rabbi with a reputation for performing miracle cures. The tzaddik prayed over the boy, who by then was unconscious and burning with fever, and told the parents to expect a miracle.

They got it. Today, still two-legged and spry, 85-year-old Kamil (who now goes by the name “Sid”) happily recounts the story of his recovery.

“Why did I survive?” asks the Albany resident. “They said I had the heart of a lion. It would not stop beating.”

In those days before antibiotics, Kamil experienced what is called a medical miracle. Are such miracles a matter of divine intervention? For many doctors, patients, chaplains and rabbis, the answer remains unclear.

“It’s a mystery,” says Bruce Feldstein, director of Jewish chaplaincy at Stanford University Medical Center and a former ER doctor. “But it leaves me filled with delight and wonder. It’s something more than science can explain.”

Though not an ordained rabbi, Feldstein is a certified Jewish chaplain. A back injury forced him to retire from medicine several years ago but his new career still brings him face to face with medical miracles and human heartbreak on a daily basis.

“Our aim is to bridge the worlds of medical knowledge, spiritual care and Jewish wisdom,” he says of his program at Stanford.

One of his favorite stories involves an Ivy League physicist admitted to the coronary care unit because of a blood leak in the heart. No matter what the doctors did, the patient grew weaker by the day. Then, just as death seemed imminent, something happened.

“I came in one morning,” recalls Feldstein, “and he looked great. His blood pressure was fine. I asked him what had happened since yesterday. He said he had a great night’s sleep. He said he dreamed angels visited him and told him everything was going to be fine. Three or four days later, he was discharged.”

Doctors who witness such miracles often try to balance their grounding in science with a respect for processes they admit science cannot explain.

“Physicians are not that accurate in prognosticating what is going to happen,” says Tom Raffin, director emeritus of the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics. “You can never talk about how long someone is going to live. I see this as a testimony to the miraculous powers of nature and the human body.”

A 2004 study by HCD Research and the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York found that 74 percent of U.S. doctors believe miracles have happened in the past, and 73 percent believe they can occur today.

Among Jewish doctors, 88 percent of Orthodox respondents said they believed miracles have transpired, as did 53 percent of Conservative respondents, 46 percent of Reform respondents and 29 percent of those identifying as culturally Jewish.

The study also found that 55 percent of the doctors surveyed believe medical practice should be guided by religious teaching. Among Jews, 53 percent of Orthodox doctors believe in the biblical miracles, as do 12 percent of Conservative respondents, more than 4 percent of Reform and 2 percent of culturally Jewish respondents.

Raffin recalls a patient who was clinically dead for 15 minutes before being resuscitated from a heart attack. The doctors expected the man to languish in a persistent vegetative state. “We thought his life was over,” remembers Raffin. “Then about seven months ago he walked into the ICU to thank everybody. He had made a complete recovery.”

Obviously, not everyone walks out of the hospital pocketing a certified medical miracle. In most cases, disease and injury take their predictable courses. But for people like Kamil, beating the odds became a way of life.

While he recovered from his childhood infection, the manner of treating it — doctors manually scraped bacteria off the bones — left him disabled. Throughout his youth, Kamil strapped a sanitary napkin to his side to soak up seepage from the wound and wore a metal brace around his waist. “I didn’t walk,” he says. “I lumbered.”

He was determined to live as normal a life as possible, but the old infection returned. This time, at age 18, he was hospitalized for nearly a year.

To pass the time, Kamil would sing along with the opera broadcasts he heard on the radio. Eventually, he recovered, then devoted himself to becoming a cantor. For 32 years, he was a busy cantor in various Long Island congregations. He married and raised a family.

Life was good.

That is, until he developed kidney cancer in his 60s. He managed to dodge that bullet as well, though he attributes that to his practice of guided imagery. “I told my T-cells to catch and kill the bastards,” he says. “It was fight or die.”

He suffered a stroke at age 71, but again, he drew on willpower to heal. Now he’s healthy and active.

Though he could be described as a walking medical miracle, Kamil dismisses the thought. “I do not believe it was divine intervention,” he says of his many close calls with death. “I was highly motivated when I was sick as a teenager. I didn’t want to die a virgin. I thought that would have been very unfair.”

For Barbara Turner, 84, a near-death experience left her less afraid of dying. A resident of El Sobrante and a former worker at the Jewish Home in San Francisco, Turner suffered a heart attack in 1983. While recovering in the ICU, her heart stopped beating.

“I knew I was dead,” she says. “It was wonderful. I felt like I comprehended everything, as though I could explain the theory of relativity. I experienced this sensation of being one with the universe.”

More than 20 years later, Turner says every day is a bonus. “I’m not religious,” she says. “But I do think there’s something more important than ‘us’ going on.”

Rabbi Daniel Isaacson, a Jewish chaplain at Berkeley’s Alta Bates Hospital, wouldn’t disagree, but he has seen other factors in play. “In terms of odds,” he says, “there’s a greater chance of recovery if there’s optimism and if the patient goes into [the illness] with this sense that anything is possible.”

That optimism is often rooted in religious faith, which caregivers like Isaacson view as an adjunct to recovery, if not a springboard for miracles.

Faith, he says, “can be a helpful coping mechanism. In terms of contributing to a turnaround, I’m not so sure. But if it’s rooted in a feeling that this is not in my hands, or seeing illness in context of a larger reality, then a kind of healing can take root.”

Says Stanford’s Raffin: “I don’t think doctors are comfortable using the word [miracle], but I have no problem with it. The term itself is not scientific, and science is very precise. But in the care of patients, things are not always precise.”

That describes the case of Sheila Ludberg, 68, of San Martin, a suburb of San Jose. Ten years ago, the former nurse practitioner collided with a car while cycling to work, suffering a severe closed head wound, the kind that usually leaves people dead or disabled.

“I had a bilateral concussion that affected the right temporal lobe,” she says. “There were multiple fractures, the brain stem was twisted. The prognosis was dire.”

Ludberg lay unconscious for days and was hospitalized for weeks. But eventually she recovered enough to go back to work and resume her rigorous exercise regimen.

“Before this I never believed in miracles,” says the member of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto. “But I know because of my profession that [these] injuries are really serious and most people don’t do well. There must be something God wanted me to do.”

Not every miracle deserves its own Hallmark TV movie. Some come in small packages.

Feldstein recalls an elderly patient from Mexico admitted for terminal brain cancer. The patient’s wife had asked the chaplain to tell her the prognosis. “She looked right at me,” remembers Feldstein. “I gave her the news and she was devastated.”

Though there was no hope for recovery, Feldstein felt there had to be something he could do to provide comfort. Noticing the woman wore a cross Feldstein decided to take a chance and pray with her.

“I started out saying, ‘Oh God, you who are the great healer, be with us in our time of need.’ She started to say a prayer herself. When she was done, she looked at me, the color returned to her face, tears in her eyes, and said, ‘Thank you.'”

Looking back, Feldstein views that moment as virtually miraculous, moving the old woman from a place of inner despair to a measure of acceptance and peace.

“I don’t know what a miracle is,” he says, “but this was a moment of awe, which touched her and me very deeply. The medical intern watching this sat there with his jaw wide open.”

His colleague Isaacson shares a similar outlook, pointing to the “miracle of arriving at peace before death, a wonderful possibility for the patients, for the family. It’s such a beautiful precious time, but it’s too often a missed opportunity.”

But for those who cheated death through medical miracles, it’s an opportunity they are happy to put off to another day.

Says Ludberg, “The fact that I didn’t die, not end up in board-and-care, that none of the things predicted came true, was a miracle. Someone is looking out for me.”

Adds Feldstein, “When we stop and think about it, life itself is a miracle. It leaves me in awe and wonder, with deep gratitude and amazement.”

cover illustration: Cathleen Maclearie

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.