The initial wave of flowers delivered to mark the birth of my son bore cards that read, "We can't wait to meet him." As word of the dire condition in which he arrived into this world spread, a second wave of cards arrived announcing, "we're praying for you."
Only a few moments after his birth, my son was noted to have symptoms of V.A.C.T.E.R.L., a constellation of birth defects with unknown origins that forty years ago would have been a death sentence. I had only a brief glimpse of him before he was whisked into the first of the numerous surgeries required to save his life. He arrived in the NICU covered in medical appliances and wearing a silk black sleep mask. Our son, Ezra, looked not unlike a sickly baby rock star. Like falling through the looking glass, my husband and I took our place in a world we hadn't known existed, the alternate universe of children with chronic health conditions. When the other parents at the neonatal intensive care unit at our hospital inquired if I would like to pray with them, I politely declined. I was then informed that studies had proven that prayer could prove an essential element of my son's survival.
I, who have always proudly maintained a dubious relationship with God and prayer, considered my options.
O.k., just how much prayer was it going to take to fortify my son? How many people praying would be enough? Which words would we use? And for what exactly would we pray? What if we prayed for a long life and it wasn't in God's plan that he survives? Wasn't it arrogant on our part to think we might thwart our son's ultimate destiny?
Of course, if I believed that prayer might help, the opposite would have to be accepted. The absence of prayer might have a deleterious effect on my son's health-- and that's when I started praying. Praying for the health of each organ in my son's body.
A series of tests were being performed to see if in fact he had all the elements that made up the acronym VACTERL:
V- vertebral- incomplete spinal cord. Please, God, please, let Ezra have a complete spine. We were told it was intact. An answered prayer.
A-anal atresia-I kept checking his diaper. It seemed like some weird trick my mind was playing on me, but each time I looked his bottom was smooth and sealed with no hint of an opening-- just like a cherub. He was fitted with a colostomy bag and a series of surgeries would be performed over the next few years to create an anus. It just figured, outr son was born in Los Angeles and they were going to have to make him an asshole.
C-cardiac . Ezra was born with a ventricular septal defect- commonly known as a hole in the heart- please god please let it close on its own as there was some precedence for this.
T-Tracheal atresia. No problem. An Answered prayer.
E-Esophageal atresia. Ezra was born with a stricture making it difficult to aspirate fluids and impossible to receive sustenance orally, a feeding tube was implanted in his chest and a string with which to float balloons down to stretch the tightened area.
R-renal. X-rays revealed that he had a conjoined kidney called a horseshoe, and though cystic, it was functional. Must not have focused prayers clearly on the kidneys.
L-Limbnal. Some VACTERL children are born without thumbs or with malformed limbs. Luckily for him, our son would know the joy and evolutionary advantages of the opposable thumb, another prayer answered.
My husband Jeff attempted to correct my relationship to prayer. Jeff is a dabbler in religion. He's Jewish, but he wears a cross around his neck. He says he's not taking any chances. Jeff also has a collection of Buddhas and wears lucky jeans. "You are supposed to pray for strength, not particulars," Jeff reminded me, "Like the serenity prayer. "
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
Is that the prayer I should be invoking, I wondered? I wasn't so sure. I have never been in a huddle, but I've seen of my share of sports movies, and it seems pretty clear to me that each team is praying to win. Praying is like the stock market; you want to see a return for your investment and I can tell you with certainty that in the surgical waiting room at Cedar Sinai, people are praying for specific results. "We'll be praying for you," the nurses said as we packed up Ezra's tubes and clamps to take him home. They handed him to us with the briefest of explanations of how to use his many appliances. Hard to believe, they can send a man into space but you have to custom cut, paste, and prepare each colostomy bag to fit.
Once we got home we entered the Kafkaesque labyrinth of home health care workers. Sometimes they showed up. Sometimes they didn't feel like it and didn't feel an obligation to tell you. Sometimes they felt the need to wake you up at three a.m. to inform you that they would only be staying the rest of the night if you paid them extra money under the table. My own experience suggests that the home health care worker sector attracts more religious fanatics than other professions. We had all types: Jehovah's witnesses, Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals and even 7th day Adventists. We were too tired to wonder about the implications of having someone care for our son who didn't believe in medical intervention. They were often inept and unable to negotiate his feeding tube, so he wasn't getting fed, but they were praying.
The veracity of their prayers both frightened and intimidated me. Not to be outdone by our nurses, I went on a campaign to enlist as many people as possible in the prayer effort. Ezra's name began circulating on prayer circle lists all over the country, and my cousins arranged for his name to be called out in Synagogues as far away as Buenos Aires.
As it turns out, God must have been busy elsewhere, because many of what I thought were answered prayers had gone unanswered. At three, Ezra was diagnosed with a debilitating spinal cord condition, thank God we caught it in time to have corrective surgery, and in another stunning misdiagnosis we learned that he has only one less than functional kidney, raising the specter of transplant and becoming his most important condition. All things considered, however, I feel extremely grateful for the medical care we received and even the prayers of strangers offered up around the globe. Our son is eight years old now and is a beautiful, energetic and artistic kid who lives gracefully with the accommodations we make for his medical conditions.
So it was with mixed emotions that I read that the findings last week of the most exhaustive study conducted to date concluded that intercessory prayer has no discernable effect on recovery from illness. The faithful, it is expected will be undeterred by the findings. Skeptics, on the other hand, have reacted, saying that this will once and for all put this notion to rest. I confess to hoping it will dampen some of what I experienced as religiously fueled self-righteousness, but even this seems like something of a hollow victory. Can anyone really be pleased to hear that we are unable to quantifiably harness some divine intervention when facing a crises?
Of course, the study left many unanswered questions. Why, for instance did the recipients of the prayers, who were informed that they were being prayed for, have a higher instance of complications? The speculation is that the knowledge they were being prayed for caused them worry over the seriousness of their condition thus increasing their stress levels. I would venture that this points to a deeper issue. I believe this occurrence more accurately reflects not whether prayer is effective or not, but how unexamined our relationship is with our own mortality. Furthermore, other equally respected studies have shown that the act of praying can measurably reduce stress in the person praying. I wonder if anyone bothered to monitor the health of these people in the study and perhaps a new study should be ordered in which the infirm are ones offering up the intercessory prayer for others !
In any case, how will this study affect my actions? As the saying goes, there are no atheists in the trenches. Yes, I suspect, even skeptics like myself, when suddenly thrust into circumstances beyond our imaginations, will continue to accept the prayers offered up to a God whose very existence we question.