Medical studies and the incredible experience of one church suggest faith can help heal

May 18, 2009

Faith: A miracle cure?
By Patrick McGee
The Middlesex News
Framingham, Mass.

Recovery of 3 local people supports study.

The recovery of three MetroWest residents from life-threatening illnesses seemingly proves religious faith is an effective healing aid, as recent studies suggest and even more doctors acknowledge.

But the power of healing is no revelation to the congregation of Christ the King Lutheran Church in Holliston, which is celebrating the recovery of three parishioners who almost died last year.

“Not only did they survive, they’re thriving,” said the Rev. Jerome Janisko, the church pastor. Janisko led the congregation in prayers for Tom Tibbetts, Fred Romsey and Louise Courtney.

“God was definitely working in our lives,” said Tibbetts’ wife Deb.

A study released this week by the American Academy of Family Physicians showed that 99 percent of doctors believe there is an important relationship between faith and healing.

Another study suggests that patients’ chances of survival increase when others pray for them. Experts are skeptical of that study, but do believe that religious conviction can enhance healing, Harvard Professor Herbert Bensen said yesterday.

“There are many, many studies showing that belief can heal,” said Bensen, author of “Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief.”

Bensen, founder of the Mind-Body Institute at Beth Israel Hospital, participated in Harvard Medical School’s conference on spirituality and healing which ended yesterday.

The conference at the country’s premier medical school is a sign of the serious treatment of a subject that doctors once scoffed at as unscientific: the healing power of faith. The conference and the Academy of Family Physicians’ study signifies a shift in modern medicine, which has traditionally relied heavily on laboratory-proven facts.

The healing power of religion was never underestimated by the faithful.

“It did not surprise me at all. It’s something in which I have believed in for years,” Janisko said. “I just believe that healing and faith are intricately connected. I think God’s healing spirit move into people’s lives.”

At every Sunday service, he said he asked the congregation to pray for Tibbetts, Romsey, Courtney and other sick people.

“As a member of the prayer group, we definitely feel that prayer does help,” said Louise Doane, a Medway resident who is part of Christ the King’s Prayer Chain which, when asked to, prays for a sick or troubled person and passes on the request by phone.

Members of the Prayer Chain kept Tibbetts, Romsey and Courtney in their prayers from the onset of their illnesses to their recoveries.

“We certainly don’t feel like it’s all our doing, but I guess we do feel like we had a part in their recovery – a small part,” said Milford resident Jean Bellucci, another member of the Prayer Chain. “It makes us feel hopeful that prayer is important.”

Members of Christ the King had their work cut out for them when they prayed for their ailing parishioners. Doctors had little hope for the three.

Milford resident Tibbetts, suffering from leukemia, was told he had only a 30 percent chance of finding a bone marrow transplant.

Romsey’s doctor later admitted that he didn’t expect the Medway resident to survive his kidney transplant.

Doctors thought they wouldn’t see Franklin resident Courtney live, or even speak when taken off the respirator.

Courtney said she remembers sitting in a pew, hearing Janisko ask for prayers for Tibbetts, a 40-year-old father of two young boys who was diagnosed with leukemia.

Tibbetts decided to see a doctor after he noticed his nose was running every time he bowed his head to take a swing in golf.

The day after the tests were taken, Tibbetts’ doctor called and said, “We need to see you and your wife right away.”

“I knew I was in trouble right away. I knew something was up,” Tibbetts said.

He was diagnosed on July 26, 1995 with leukemia, or cancer of the blood. He was told he only had a 50 percent chance of finding a sibling donor and a 50 percent chance of surviving the transplant.

Tibbetts’ sister donated the bone marrow, and the transplant was scheduled for Nov. 9, 1995 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The operation was successful but his recovery was extremely difficult.

Because of his stressed immune system, he was placed in a sealed, germ-free room. Tibbetts sometimes vomited 35 times a day during his recovery and spent Thanksgiving 1995 “in a fog” unaware of what was happening.

When he was released, his house was virtually sterilized and stripped of most items. His wife and children could only touch him with rubber gloves. A moratorium on visitors to his house was finally lifted on Nov. 9.

Tibbetts returned to church on July 14, when an outdoor service made it possible for him to attend without being exposed to the germs of an enclosed building.

Janisko saw Tibbetts in the back and said, “Ladies and gentlemen we have a miracle with us today.”

“People had been praying for us for such a long time,” Tibbetts said. “It was really great for them to say ‘Oh my gosh, there he is.’ ”

Tibbetts, who said he didn’t attend church regularly, hasn’t missed a service since his recovery.

“I was the type of guy who would pray if I got into trouble and when I got out of trouble, I would go on with my life. Now I’m more consistent with it,” he said.

Romsey was next on the congregation’s prayer list.

The father of three had four heart attacks in less than a year. Doctors weren’t sure what was causing it, but tests showed his kidneys getting damaged with each attack.

By August 1995, Romsey was on dialysis, a procedure used to clean the blood because his kidneys were not ridding the body of toxins.

Doctors said a transplant was needed and tests were taken on his family. Romsey’s youngest son, Eric age 25, tested positive for a match.

The transplant was scheduled at Beth Israel Hospital for March 19, four days before his 56th birthday.

“Before I went into surgery, I said, “God, I’m in Your hands,’ ” he said.

Romsey woke up to a doctor who told him the operation went so well he wouldn’t be moved to intensive care as planned.

That night he had another heart attack.

“The next thing I know, a bunch of people came in and a crash cart comes in like you see in the movies,” Romsey said.

He said he watched his heart rate fluctuate wildly on the monitor as doctors took four hours to get it under control.

The heart attack kept him in the hospital for three more days and he returned home gaunt and exhausted.

“I looked like somebody just took me out of a coffin and stood me up,” Romsey said.

The change in his appearance was so drastic, members of the congregation didn’t recognize him.

“They didn’t know it was me until I talked, and they said, ‘Is that you Fred?’ ” he said.

People were having coffee in the parish hall when Romsey saw a woman who once drove him to his doctor appointments. He waved, but she didn’t wave back; she didn’t know who it was.

Romsey said his illness and recovery was “tough” but boosted his spirits in the end.

“I appreciate things a lot more. I guess you get a different look at life when you almost lose it,” he said. “Getting more religious I think has put me at an inner ease that I didn’t have before.”

Courtney’s medical problems came suddenly on June 15 when she woke up with an excruciating headache. She called 911 and was taken to Milford Hospital and then flown to UMass Medical Center in Worcester.

The blood vessel that burst in her right temple put the 68-year-old woman in a coma. Doctors operated immediately and found they had to treat two more blood vessels at risk of bursting.

Still in a coma, Courtney was transferred to Columbia MetroWest Medical Center in Natick so she could be closer to her five children and 10 grandchildren.

“They came day after day for weeks and weeks, and nobody could wake me up,” she said.

She came out of the coma after six weeks and started proving the doctors wrong as soon as the respirator was removed.

“The surgeon who operated on my head told my kids I would never come out of the hospital, but I proved them all wrong,” she said patting the side of her head.

She said she believes the prayers of her church of four decades helped her recover.

“You realize that you’re very dependent on the Lord for your life … I know a lot of people who have been praying for me. I can’t let them down. I have to work hard to get better,” she said. “When you stop and think of it, we’re all a little miracle.”