Why Doctors Believe in Miracles

A new book of amazing stories will convince you to never give up hope.
Courtesy Health Communications, Inc.

This summer, I was reminded that you have to expect the unexpected. Somehow, I got viral encephalitis during a European bicycle trip (sans kids) that my husband and I had been looking forward to for a year. No one knows how I got sick—it was just bad luck. But I also had the good luck to wind up in a hospital in Belgium where smart ER doctors and nurses diagnosed me quickly and started treatment that could very well have saved my life. (I was also lucky to have bought trip insurance, which paid for me to be Medevac’d back home—and you should definitely consider buying it on your next vacation.)

As much as we might complain about the healthcare system, we are fortunate to live in a country with advanced medical technology and brilliant, devoted doctors. Thanks to their skillful care, patients can overcome great odds.

However, medical miracles can occur despite the best medical care. Sometimes, even doctors can’t explain why their very sick patient recovered, and these unbelievable experiences stay with them forever.

Parents advisor Harley Rotbart, M.D., will never forget one young patient from his pediatrics residency more than 35 years ago. In the middle of the winter, a 7-year-old had jumped into a freezing undrained swimming pool to rescue his 3-year-old brother. When the paramedics arrived, both boys were unconscious. The younger boy regained consciousness a few hours after arriving at the hospital and was fine. However, his older brother remained in a coma for several weeks. The pediatrics residents took turns staying with boy every night, and one night, the boy suddenly squeezed Dr. Rotbart’s hand. As he recalls, “It would be several more days before our little hero opened his eyes; a few hours after that, he smiled, still with a breathing tube in place. When he walked out of the hospital more than two months after the near-drowning and his courageous rescue of his little brother, after nearly everyone had given up hope, we all cheered and cried. We had cried many times in the preceding weeks, and I still cry when I recall this story. All these years later, I still can’t explain medically how this boy recovered.”

Two years ago, Dr. Rotbart started “The Miracles Project” to collect similar stories from colleagues around the country. The result is his new book, Miracles We Have Seen: American’s Leading Physicians Share Stories They Can’t Forget, a collection of 85 powerful essays, more than half of which are about children. The stories recount impossible cures, breathtaking resuscitations, extraordinary awakenings, spectacular serendipities, and recovery from unimaginable disasters. Some doctors told of unforgettable experiences that were more emotional than physical—heart-wrenching decisions by patients and families, and the resulting joy or heartbreak. Some discovered a silver lining of forgiveness or resilience, a child’s wisdom or a family’s generosity of spirit that evoked salvation and triumph in the face of sadness and tragedy.

The book is ultimately about optimism and inspiration, and the realization that what we don’t know or understand isn’t necessarily cause for fear, and can even be reason for hope. One-hundred percent of the net author proceeds will be donated to 65 charities chosen by the doctors who wrote the essays.

Diane Debrovner is the deputy editor of Parents and the mother of two daughters. 

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