“Miracle” vs Medical Marvel

The South African media is brimming with excitement over the “miracle” of the 3-year-old girl, Pippie Kruger, who has received a massive graft of her own cloned skin, which appears to have been a success.

Doctors at the Garden City Clinic, in Johannesburg, have been treating this little girl ever since she was burnt over 80% of her body on New Years’ Eve – a liquid fire-lighter her father was using exploded, setting Pippie on fire, and leaving her with terrible burn wounds over most of her body.

Since the accident, Pippie has had 45 operations, kidney failure and five heart attacks. She survived – thanks to the wonderful care she received from Doctor Ridwan Mia and his team at the Clinic.

A few square centimetres of healthy skin from her groin (which was protected from the fire by her nappy) was sent to Genzyme, a biotechnical company in Boston. They cloned her skin, growing it in thin sheets. These were flown to South Africa last week and transplanted onto Pippie’s body in a gruelling operation. The little girl has been heavily sedated and immobilised, and tonight some of the bandages were peeled away. The cloned skin remained in place – much to the relief and joy of Pippie’s parents, the medical team, and all who have been following this story.

Dr Mia appeared on TV news tonight, glowing with happiness and relief, and excited to tell the country the fantastic news – and what did the interviewer say?

“It’s a miracle!”

Well no, it’s not.

It’s the result of medical science. Doctors, clinic, biotechnology company, researchers…. and Pippie’s healthy body (before the accident)… are responsible for the success of this ground breaking surgery. Doctor Mia and his team displayed great strength, skill and determination.

There is no need to assume a god or gods had any hand in it. If a god or the gods, assuming they exist, were in the slightest bit interested, wouldn’t he/they have prevented the fire-lighter from exploding? Wouldn’t he/they have taken steps to ensure the child was not burnt over 80% of her little body?

And, it’s no good saying Pippie’s pain, the suffering she has endured and will surely endure for years to come, is all part of some divine plan. What plan could possibly justify doing such a terrible thing to a totally innocent child and her parents?

All credit should go to the medical team, Doctor Mia, the Garden City Clinic, Pippie’s parents, and to Genzyme – it is an insult to imply that a supernatural “miracle” is responsible for saving this child’s life!

Faith versus Medical Science

The husband of a colleague of mine has been very ill, and was admitted to a hospital yesterday for tests. I understand he has seen various doctors already, including a neurologist, but there has been no definite diagnosis as yet.

It sounds as though he might have had a stroke, or be suffering from epilepsy, or possibly a tumour – I’m not a doctor, so I can’t speculate. He was admitted to quite a good hospital, they ran some tests, and have decided to transfer him to a better hospital in Pretoria, for further tests. His doctors are obviously taking his plight seriously, and are investigating every angle. I truly hope they can find out what is wrong, and treat him successfully – for the sake of his wife and children.

I asked my colleague today how she was handling the stress, and during our conversation she got quite emotional… who wouldn’t be emotional in her situation? I tried to reassure her, telling her she should be grateful for the doctors, nurses and hospitals, for the sophisticated medical equipment and treatments available – they will do everything in their power to diagnose and treat him.

(If he’d been born in the Middle Ages, he might have been subject to all sorts of horrendous “treatments,” any one of which might have killed him! Blood-letting was particularly popular….. Fortunately, medical science has evolved since then!)

Sometimes an illness is too far advanced to be treated successfully, and sometimes there is no known cure…. Holding back her tears, my colleague said “All I can do is have faith in God to help us.”

That got me thinking: why would anyone think that God can make a difference in this situation? If God cared, wouldn’t he have prevented her husband getting sick in the first place? If he was powerless to prevent the illness, couldn’t he have used his omnipotent superpowers to guide the doctors to make a quick diagnosis, instead of putting this family through this torture?

Of course, the True Believer will respond that this man’s illness, and the pain and anguish of his wife and children are all part of some “Divine Plan.”

I can’t imagine what Plan would consist of such cruelty – clearly this god is a bit of a sadist – but assuming that is correct and there is a Plan of some sort – what point would there be in praying to him for help? He clearly has his mind made up already!


Here’s an interesting thought experiment: take 100 religious people and 100 non-believers. Inject them all with a bacterium which is normally fatal. Isolate each group on a separate island, with food and shelter, and give the atheists the antibiotic known to be effective against the bacterial infection.

Don’t give the religious group any antibiotics – instead send out a worldwide news release, asking people of the same religious persuasion to pray for the religious group to be healed by their god. Naturally, there will be a massive response and the heavens will positively ring with the desperate prayers of the faithful.

Come back to each island in 3 months time, and count the survivors.

Any guess as to which group will have the greatest number still living?

Most people would admit that the group of non-believers would have the most survivors, because the gods don’t really answer prayers. (Ask any religious person you know if they would volunteer to be in the religious group, and I can guarantee they will come up with a really good excuse to not participate!)

My colleague would be better off putting her confidence in the doctors and hospitals who are actually DOING something to help her husband. These people and institutions are REAL  i.e. they can be shown to actually exist

You don’t have to have “FAITH” in them. You can hate and distrust them if you want to. They will still do their very best, apply their knowledge and experience, use their diagnostic tools, and try to help regardless of how you feel about them. They don’t need you to worship them. They WANT to cure your illness, and all they ask is to be reimbursed for their time and skill.

If you need to be convinced of the terrible HARM that can come from relying on faith that a god, any god, will heal you – read this! You can pick up any newspaper on almost any day and find similar stories. Faith is not an effective medical treatment!

I’m not referring exclusively to the christian version of faith healing here – most religions claim that their god has the power to heal, and works through humans, animals or even inanimate objects. (Even bits of rock are supposed to be able to heal – see my article on the Atlantean Power Crystals.)

I feel deep compassion for people who are deceived by faith healing. It’s not their fault – they have been brought up to believe it. They have probably never heard an alternate view – and even when they do, they tend to reject such views outright because they have invested too much in their religion already. It’s a hard habit to break, apparently.

Here is a video by Derren Brown, which explains how faith healers deceive people into believing they have special powers.¬† Here is James Randi’s expose of Peter Popoff who received radio transmissions through a wireless earpiece during his healing crusades, feeding him information about the audience who had filled out prayer cards before the performances….. Fortunately, this charlatan is no longer in the faith healing business!

Trickery and fraud by faith healers has been exposed many, many times – read James Randi’s excellent book “Faith Healers” for more infamous examples. If so many faith healers are using these tricks, how do you know if any one faith healer really does have Special Powers?

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!

So far the evidence is stacked high and wide against faith healing.

Supernatural claims are outside of the realm of scientific study, but some scientists have tried to measure the effects of prayer and found them to be largely absent or negative. I found some interesting articles, mostly reaching similar conclusions:

“Meta-studies of the broader literature have been performed showing evidence only for no effect or a potentially small effect. For instance, a 2006 meta analysis on 14 studies concluded that there is “no discernable effect” while a 2007 systemic review of intercessory prayer reported inconclusive results, noting that 7 of 17 studies had “small, but significant, effect sizes” but the review noted that the three most methodologically rigorous studies failed to produce significant findings.” from Wikipedia

Prayer is often credited with rather unmiraculous benefits, such as recovery from heart surgery which would most likely have happened anyway, especially if the patient is in intensive care, receiving medication and expert nursing 24/7.

I think the real “miracle” is the dedication of the nurses, the intelligence of the doctors and the persistence of the researchers. We are living in an age of amazing advances in medical science – why does anybody bother with the Sky Fairy and his Associates?