This edition: A seemingly miraculous healing of a pancreas injury and the self-healing claim of Joe Dispenza.
By Harriet Hall, MD
Answer: As I explained in my article “On Miracles” in the recent issue of Skeptic magazine, this is typical of the great majority of medical “miracle” accounts. There is insufficient information to establish whether anything unusual or inexplicable actually happened. It amounts to a testimonial and is no more valid as evidence than a person’s report that he saw a ghost or a UFO. If we had access to her medical records and results of tests, we might be able to get a clue; but without them, all I can do is speculate.
Damage to the pancreas is not uncommon after car accidents, but it is usually characterized by pain and other symptoms, not just by weight loss and fever. It is difficult to diagnose, since blood tests are unreliable and imaging studies are difficult to interpret. And 25 years ago she wouldn’t have had the kind of imaging studies we would do today. Today, a CT scan is usually the study of choice, but it only picks up 40-68% of injuries. Death from pancreatic injury is usually due to hemorrhage, and rather than slowly “getting worse every day,” hemorrhage would have killed her quickly without surgical intervention. We can assume that if she had any internal bleeding, it must have been minor, and minor bleeding can sometimes stop on its own thanks to the body’s normal clotting response. If there was damage to pancreatic tissue rather than to blood vessels, there would be no reliable way to know if she had recovered completely in 24 hours. Low-grade injuries can sometimes heal spontaneously, and today it is acceptable to manage selected patients conservatively with watchful waiting as long as their vital signs are stable. Unstable or deteriorating patients are not told they are going to die; they are operated on to try to save their life.
So I think we can assume that either the diagnosis was inaccurate or she had a minor injury that healed through the body’s normal healing mechanisms. Why should anyone assume something supernatural had occurred? Even if her recovery was unexplained, that only means we haven’t yet been able to explain it; it doesn’t mean there is no natural explanation. And it certainly doesn’t mean the explanation is supernatural. It would have been appropriate for her doctors to write up a case history and submit it to a medical journal so other doctors could comment and learn from their experience. I’m guessing they didn’t do that.
Medical science is imperfect, and we can’t always explain everything. Sometimes we just have to live with uncertainty. For example, I had shoulder pain for a year that severely limited my range of motion in one arm, and suddenly one day I realized the pain was gone. I can’t explain what caused it or why it wentaway, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an explanation. I would rather not know the explanation than believe an explanation that was wrong.
Your mother will not change her mind, and without reliable documentation we can never know what really happened. She chooses to interpret her experience as a miracle. I do not, because skeptics don’t accept beliefs without sufficient evidence. Different world views. End of story.
I am aware of the astonishing results placebo surgery does achieve activating the self healing powers of the body. But Dr. Dispenza’s case surpasses anything I ever heard of. There have always been people around who stretched the limits of existing paradigms - is Dr Dispenza one of them?
Answer: No, “Dr.” Dispenza is not some lone genius who has made some new scientific breakthrough. He isn’t even a medical doctor, only a doctor of chiropractic, a discipline that is based on a mythical concept (the chiropractic subluxation) and a vitalistic belief in a kind of “energy medicine” that mysteriously heals the body when the spine is in proper alignment.
I can understand why an account like Dispenza’s might sound impressive to a layman, but there’s no mystery here. As a science-based medical doctor, I have no reason to think that the healing of his fractures had anything to do with his thoughts or his meditation practices. Fractures have always healed themselves. Immobilization and orthopedic surgery don’t heal, they only aim to facilitate the body’s healing processes and minimize complications. Before modern medicine, some people survived serious injuries, just as some people survived pneumonia before antibiotics were developed.
The process of fracture healing is well understood. There is bleeding at the site of injury. A hematoma forms and is infiltrated by inflammatory cells. Granulation tissue forms, blood vessels grow into the area, and a soft callus develops, forming a ball of new tissue around the broken bone ends. Damaged bone is resorbed and new bone is laid down. Eventually the bone is remodeled, re-shaped to approximate its original form, although there are still residual signs on x-ray that allow a radiologist to diagnose an old healed fracture. Incidentally, this same process occurs in normal bone, which is a living tissue where cells called osteoclasts are constantly breaking down old bone and cells called osteoblasts are constantly depositing new bone. Osteoporosis occurs when the osteoclasts get ahead of the osteoblasts.
Dispenza took a big risk when he refused surgery. His case might well have turned out differently. He was fortunate that even without surgical fixation, his fractures healed without complications. Without surgery, there is a danger of paralysis or permanent nerve damage from shifting bone fragments or nerve compression before healing can occur; he was one of the lucky ones. There is no reason to think that his injuries wouldn’t have resolved just as quickly without any thought control or meditation.
Placebos are widely misunderstood. They don’t have any objective healing powers. Placebos have never been shown to change the course of any kind of illness; they have only been shown to temporarily improve subjective complaints like pain and nausea. You have a misconception about placebo surgery; no, it does nothing to activate the self-healing powers of the body. Placebo surgery is never used clinically for treatment. It has only been used as a placebo control in scientific studies, where it has been useful in demonstrating that a particular surgical procedure was ineffective and should be abandoned.
The idea of “mind over matter” is seductive. We would love to believe we can get control over the uncertainties in our lives. We would love to think we can alter reality with our thoughts alone, but we can’t. The mind can help us cope with reality, but it can’t change reality.
Incidentally, if you thought Dispenza was a credible witness, you might be surprised to learn that he is a New Age woo-monger, a gullible believer in an imaginary “Quantum Field” that supposedly responds to human thoughts and intentions. He was featured in the reprehensible movie “What the Bleep Do we Know.” He has no evidence to support his claims, only testimonials, fanciful hypotheses, and speculations.
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