Sunday, April 3, 2016

Meet the local doctor behind ‘Miracles From Heaven’

Several years ago on a balmy winter day in Texas, 9-year-old Annabel Beam fell from a branch into the hollow body of an enormous cottonwood tree in her family’s cow pasture. She tumbled down 30 feet, landed on her head, and was trapped for hours before rescuers could reach her.

That Anna survived the fall unharmed is amazing. That she emerged from the tree free of the two rare, chronic diseases she suffered from is described by both her pastor and her doctor as a miracle.

For Anna’s physician, Dr. Samuel Nurko, director of the Center for Motility and Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, the abrupt disappearance of Anna’s intestinal disorders following a major trauma is an extreme example of a certain kind of medical event he witnesses on a regular basis — the kind for which there is no scientific explanation.

“I haven’t seen it to this degree, but we do see patients who have experiences that can reset the body,” says Nurko. “It’s like pressing control-alt-delete.”

For Anna’s family and their devout Christian community, there is no question that the girl’s miraculous recovery was an act of God. While she was trapped in the tree, Anna told her parents, she met Jesus in heaven and he sent her back to earth with a guardian angel.

Her mother, Christy, wrote a memoir about it. “Miracles From Heaven,” a film based on the book, is in theaters now, and Nurko is having a Hollywood moment. He walked the red carpet at the film’s Chestnut Hill premiere with Jennifer Garner, who stars as Christy Beam. He’s had boldface shout-outs in glossy magazines. He’s watched himself played on the big screen by Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez, right down to his signature Elmo tie.

“I loved the movie,” Nurko says. But he declines to address the Beams’ interpretation of Anna’s sudden return to good health. “That is their story to tell.” 

Prior to Anna’s fall, mother and daughter traveled regularly from their home near Burleson, Texas, a rural suburb of Fort Worth, to Boston for treatment and monitoring at Children’s Hospital. Anna had been sick since she was 4 with pseudo-obstruction motility disorder and antral hypomotility disorder, illnesses for which there is no cure. The nerves and muscles in her intestines didn’t contract normally, and as a result food, fluid, and air weren’t able to properly move through Anna’s body. By the time she was 5 she’d had multiple surgeries for intestinal obstructions. Anna’s diet was largely liquid, her drug intake copious, and she was in near-constant pain.

Then she fell into the tree. Nurko thinks that Anna had a near-death experience, although he says it’s impossible to know for sure.

“It was a major event in her inner self,” he says, “that’s the message. It’s been shown in many cases that your inner well-being, your faith, your attitude, your beliefs and experiences, your family interactions, they are all going to affect how you react to disease.”

Nurko is describing the biopsychosocial model of medicine, known more colloquially as the mind-body connection. It is a driving principle of his practice, but despite growing evidence, Western medicine has been slow to embrace the notion that forces outside of the body may impact illness. Dr. Jeffrey Rediger, a practitioner at the nexus of medicine, psychiatry, and spirituality, is trying to change that.

“We’re groaning toward a larger understanding of the power of the mind,” says Rediger, who is medical director at the McLean Southeast Adult Psychiatric Program in Middleborough, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. “We can’t think ourselves into health, but the pattern I’ve seen over and over again is that if a person can have a deep change in their psyche or their soul, whether it happens quickly or over 10 years in psychotherapy, the body responds. It’s an unmapped wilderness in our culture.”

Spiritual experiences are an especially knotty problem for traditional science, Rediger says, rooted as it is in the assumption that thoughts and feelings must be excluded from the data in order to uncover objective reality. Regarding Anna Beam’s “miracle,” Rediger takes issue with the very definition of the word.

“I believe that miracles only contradict what we know of nature,” he says. “I believe that miracles are actually consistent with mental and spiritual laws, it’s just that we’re in the very early stages of mapping them in the West. Modern physics values consciousness, and this is very slowly revising science. As we continue to become more interested as a culture in the power and capacities of the mind, I suspect we will see more interest in researching such capacities.”

Nurko, meanwhile, would like to see more interest in researching gastrointestinal disease, and it’s his fervent hope that the publicity surrounding “Miracles From Heaven” will increase awareness and funding for a range of disorders that he says affect 10 percent of all children.

He said the public is not inclined to get involved in gastrointestinal disorders.

“When you talk about poop and vomiting, people don’t want to engage. It’s not stem cells. Cancer is sexier. These kids get forgotten.”

Anna’s story, however, is unforgettable. When she returned to Children’s Hospital for the first time after her fall, she was asymptomatic. Completely normal. A pizza eater. Nurko saw no need to run even a single test. Asked how surprised he was by Anna’s headlong return to good health, he says he is consistently surprised by diseases not doing what doctors expect them to do.

“We think we know what’s going to happen, but nature has a way to play games with us,” says Nurko. “We see miracles every day here in the hospital.”

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