Giffords’ Progress and “Miracles”

A recent New York Times article covered the “remarkable progress” of Representative Gabrielle Giffords following the shooting in Tucson:

“In response to a reporter’s question about whether Ms. Giffords’s recovery might be considered miraculous, Dr. G. Michael Lemole Jr., the hospital’s chief of neurosurgery said, ‘Miracles happen every day, and in medicine, we like to attribute them to what we do or what others do around us. A lot of medicine is outside our control. We are wise to acknowledge miracles.'”

Overall, I thought this was an appropriate and reasonable reply. However, given that I am not under the same political and public relations constraints as Dr. Lemole, I would go considerably further:

I don’t believe there is a God that takes a personal interest in the welfare of Representative Giffords. If I believed otherwise, I would then have to ask where was this God during the shooting at the supermarket? If he is so interested in performing miracles on behalf of Rep. Giffords, why didn’t he prevent her from being shot in the first place? And why did he let five other innocent people, including a 9-year-old-girl, meet their death? If God wasn’t willing to prevent this tragedy, there is little reason to believe he has been paying visits to Rep. Giffords’ hospital room.

It is true that Rep. Giffords’ progress is unusual, much more positive at this point than doctors would have expected or predicted. But this does not make it “miraculous” — at least not in any religious sense of the word. Otherwise, we’d also have to look at the equally unusual, unexpected and unpredicted terrible things that occur in hospitals. Things such as the people who “mysteriously” die on the table during what was supposed to be an uneventful routine surgery. Are we to call these miracles as well? Or curses? Or what?

On balance, it seems better to just leave miracles and religion out of the equation altogether. There is always variability in outcomes. Some patients do better than we expect. Others do worse. There is nothing unusual in this. Any surprise in Rep. Giffords’ progress is a consequence of our continuing ignorance, a reminder of how little we still know and how much we have yet to learn about how our bodies work.

I am grateful that Ms. Giffords is doing so well. Her progress is the result of the skilled and hard work of her medical staff, the quick assistance she received from people at the scene of the shooting — and some good fortune regarding the specifics of her injury. Let’s leave it at that.

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