In 1995, debris from a burning church collapsed on Buffalo firefighter Donny Herbert, depriving him of oxygen for six minutes and consciousness for 10 years.
But in what has been described as a medical miracle, Herbert became fully lucid a decade after that tragedy, defying a dim prognosis and allowing him enough time to express love for his wife and four sons. He died just as unexpectedly in May 2005, a month after re-awakening.
Herbert’s experience evokes the question: Can the human mind provide the power to will a man from a near-comatose state? Some experts believe the mind is not only powerful, it isn’t even “local” to the body.
Dr. Larry Dossey, a physician and the former editor of a journal on alternative medicine, has lectured worldwide on the power of the mind. On his Web site, he goes even further, noting that Western medicine doesn’t prepare physicians for “miracles,” even though most doctors have witnessed the inexplicable. “Almost all physicians possess a lavish list of strange happenings unexplainable by normal science,” he said.
The medical literature is replete with reports of tumors that have vanished or patients who say they’ve floated away from their bodies.
But Dr. Kevin Tracey, director of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, takes a more rational approach, noting that a sharp difference exists between the lexicon of mystics and scientists, even when they are witnessing the same phenomena. What some people may deem miraculous is an issue in need of study to others.
“Science doesn’t embrace mystical explanations. The basis of science is explaining observations in reproducible ways,” Tracey said. Reviving after years in a near-vegetative state, he said, probably has a rational explanation.
Rich Blake, author of the book “The Day Donny Herbert Woke Up”, said a Buffalo doctor had given Herbert an experimental medication in hopes of reviving the firefighter. Doctors were unable to say whether the drugs worked.
Blake, a financial magazine journalist in Manhattan, is the first cousin of Linda Herbert, Donny’s wife. He’s also steeped in the lore of Buffalo’s Catholic community. For decades, residents have attributed the inexplicable to Father Nelson Baker, a priest whom many say performed – and still performs – medical miracles. Baker died 71 years ago.
At the nursing home where Herbert resided, Blake said many patients have reported seeing Baker entering their rooms. Upon re-awakening, Herbert told his wife that he, too, had seen the priest.
“To think that he could be in this stupor for 10 years and just start talking and return to them, what way could you describe this other than to say this was a miracle,” Blake said.
Linda Herbert, he added, attributed much of her husband’s reawakening to his own willpower. “I don’t want to overplay the miracle angle,” Blake said, “because people can’t pray for miraculous cures. They also have to fight with their insurance companies, and work with their doctors. But I do think miracles … do happen every day. There are things that have absolutely no explanation.”
In November, Dr. Dirk De Ridder of University Hospital Antwerp in Belgium wrote about a patient who had out-of-the-body experiences during treatment for tinnitus, ringing in the ears. De Ridder’s research was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The ringing had defied medical and psychiatric treatments. So De Ridder resorted to a maverick therapy that involved placing electrodes in the area of the brain believed to be the ringing’s source. An out-of-the-body experience was elicited, De Ridder noted, each time a specific brain region was stimulated.
The 63-year-old patient reported floating away from his body, viewing De Ridder as he attempted to fix the ear problem. The ghostly state was clocked as lasting about 17 seconds, each time.
Tracey describes the human brain as largely unexplored terrain, which may help put into perspective why a near-comatose man can re-awaken after a decade, or a patient can float away from his body. “We are still inventing tools to study brain function,” he said.
By Delthia Ricks, newsday.com
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