Michael Powell: I had not expected to enjoy Ann Widdecombe

Neurosurgeon Michael PowellI had not expected to enjoy Ann Widdecombe’s BBC documentary on Cardinal John Henry Newman, (Saint or Sinner), broadcast on 18 September, especially as my interview was edited down to about one minute; however, I found it interesting, balanced and surprisingly moving.  Whatever the pros and cons of beatification, if ever a man deserved this, it was Newman.

The problem for the Catholic authorities is that they do need a “miracle” for beatification.  I don’t really believe in surgical miracles, and it is a pity that they had to choose one which was so unconvincing.

I had been given previously more of the details of the patient who had received this “miracle,” even if I have neither seen him, nor his investigations.  It seems clear, however, that he suffered from lumbar canal stenosis.

This degenerative spinal condition usually presents with pain in the legs, perhaps with root neurological signs, on walking and which are usually relieved by rest.  At its worst, the symptoms and signs may be present to some degree at rest and also be further complicated by severe back pain.

In the miracle patient, they came on suddenly when he was under stress, and were relieved by prayer.  To us neurosurgeons, this is is explicable.  Stress can precipitate many back problems, and many therapies that are non- surgical can lead to an instant improvement.  I should know, my neck has been relieved of severe painful spasm by physiotherapy on a number of occasions.  Once while staying with a neurosurgeon in Australia, it had to be relieved by his masseur, whom he employed to “destress” him following surgery.

My preference is for good quality physiotherapy, but all the manipulative therapies can instantly lead to pain relief, as can relaxation and some treatments on the fringes of orthodox treatment.  Years ago, I had a wealthy patient with severe sciatica who had his driver take him down, lying down in the back of his limo,  to a “wise woman” in the depths of Berkshire where she successfully drew of the painful poisons by laying on her hands.  In trials, placebos such as this can work.

Ultimately the patient needed an operation.  This took a long time (American operations tend to) and may have been complicated by a CSF leak.   We don’t know exactly what he did, it was not said.

The American orthopaedic spinal surgeon said on the programme that neurological signs cannot improve in five days.  I would say that if the neurological signs are not better as the patient is in recovery, I want to know why.  I can remember, back in the 1980s, some orthopaedic surgeons used to “consent” their patients warning them that they would have a foot drop after surgery, but we surely don’t believe that any longer?

He said too, that patients are not pain free by five days.  Most of mine leave hospital at 36 hours after surgery, delighted in the relief of symptoms and with minimal discomfort.  I do not do fusions but in well motivated patients in whose cases I have been involved, they too can go home comfortable in two or three days.

Do patients get better suddenly a few days after surgery?  Yes, it does happen, though not often.  I had a case at Christmas who did just that at three days of post surgery agony  (no neurology though!)

Many of my patients who saw the Sunday Times article covering the same story (in which I was also quoted) told me they were delighted to be miracles, and it nice to know that we UK neurosurgeons could be contributing to beatification so often.

Michael Powell has been a consultant neurosurgeon at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square London, for twenty five years.  His GP wife shares his bizarre interest in martyred saints. He’s not a Catholic.

See also on doc2doc, BMJ Group’s clinical community for doctors worldwide: Cardinal John Henry Newman and medical miracles