Each week in hospital we endure a session entitled “patient education”. I say endure because normally presenters fall into the trap of treating physically handicapped people as though they also are intellectually disabled – aiming the sessions at the lowest common denominator. This week, however, the head of the spinal unit – Dr Bonny Lee – presented a talk on stem cell research and not only did he treat us as withintelligent people, he also touched on a very important issue.
There has been substantial talk recently about the use of stem cells to heal the nerves damaged by spinal-cord injury. Type into Google “stem cell treatment of spinal cord injury” and you will get various references to treatment centres in China and India claiming to be able to heal these injuries by the injection of stem cells. One of my neighbours, Brett (not necessarily a real name), is a tetraplegic who has experienced very little improvement in his condition – it is about three months after his accident and he still has no feeling or movement below the shoulders. Next Thursday he leaves for India where he will say for three months in a treatment clinic for stem cell therapy.
I understand what he is doing with and my wife and I have asked ourselves the question as to whether we too should make the trip. The difficulty, however, with is not only the ethics of the source of stem cells – and we should not forget that the use of embryonic stems cells is not only a concern for Christians but even an issue for pro-choice advocates, since it is universally admitted that abortion is not an ideal choice (even if some think it a “necessary” one), and should not in any way be encouraged by its use in scientific and medical activities.
The immediate concern for the tetraplegic is that these so-called treatments are not yet substantiated by quality, peer reviewed, medical research, and there is simply no evidence that they are effective. People in desperate need will do anything for a miracle cure and, sadly, disreputable organisations will prey on that fact. A similar need draws people to the healing rallies of showman such as Benny Hinn, but it least his promise is less costly and has less negative side-effects (I am not here dismissing the power of God to heal, but merely commenting on the false promise made by some healing evangelists are). Overseas treatment clinics charge many tens of thousands of dollars, but the science of stem cell research, while promising, is presently unable to regenerate the complex nerves that are damaged in spinal injury.
More than false promises, people injecting stem cells into their spine face a very real risk of harm. These risks include the possibility of developing cancers and tumours. And since treatment clinics take patients from overseas and then send them home, they share none of the responsibility for dealing with these long-term complications.
Enough technical jargon, those wanting more information can refer to the ICCP document, experimental treatment for spinal Cord injury. What is fascinating here is the universal longing for a miracle. There are some similarities between Brett’s desire for a miracle and some Christians approach to faith. His problem is that his faith is irrational– it gives everything in pursuit of a dream that is illusory. While the same could be said of many Christians, I understand faith differently. Faith knows that God can heal (and prayer for healing is an appropriate response to such knowledge), but it also trusts God in all the messiness and crises of life. Faith is able to hold together a hope for a better future with acceptance of the reality of life as it is. That, at least, is the sort of faith that I would like to embody (even if I don’t often manage it).
PS – I have moved my diarising to this blog as I simply did not have enough space on Facebook. Obviously this means I am long winded, so sorry if I bore you.