Firefighter’s “Miracle Recovery”

July 9, 2013

At 6:54 a.m., December 29, 1995, the roof of a burning house collapsed on Buffalo fireman Donald J. Herbert. Before being rescued he had been starved of oxygen for some six minutes, resulting in brain damage. For almost the next decade he was in a minimally responsive state, unable to communicate effectively.

Then, suddenly, on April 30, 2005, while sitting in his wheelchair in Father Baker Manor, a nursing home in Orchard Park, New York, Herbert began calling aloud for his wife Linda and four sons. He was soon talking and recognizing family, friends, and fellow firefighters. The change in his condition was remarkable. (Patrick Lakamp, “The Fight Behind the Miracle,” The Buffalo News, June 16, 2013.)

Many called it a miracle. One of his physicians at Father Baker Manor thought so, saying at a press conference “I can’t explain it any other way. It’s phenomenal.” Indeed, some thought it was just the case they were looking for to spark the canonization of the priest the rest home was named for, Father Nelson Baker (1841–1936). They believed the Herbert case could well be one of the two requisite miracles needed to declare Baker a saint. Soon, however, such hopes were all but dashed. Herbert’s “recovery”—already limited—was uneven, and it suffered a decline after a nighttime fall from bed sent him to a hospital emergency room for stiches to his head. He died February 22, 2006, eight months after his awakening (John Koerner, The Father Baker Code, Buffalo, NY: Western New York Wares, 2009, 44–47).

Herbert’s unusual case did not seem to meet the requirements for canonization. The Vatican requires a miracle to be complete and permanent—Herbert’s was neither—and for the candidate for sainthood to have interceded. The latter act could not be effectively established, since Linda Herbert had prayed not only to Father Baker but also “to every saint and holy figure on record” (Rich Blake, The Day Donny Herbert Woke Up, New York: Harmony Books, 2007, p. 235). So whom should the supposed intercession be attributed to?

In fact, Donald Herbert’s wonderful improvement—limited and temporary though it proved to be—was apparently due to science. About three months before, Herbert’s physician, Dr. Jamil Ahmed of the University of Buffalo, had prescribed a “cocktail” of medications for Herbert. The drugs targeted chemicals in the brain like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine to treat problems of attention, cognition, and so on. (See Miranda Hitti, “Firefighter’s Miracle Recovery Rare in Long-term Coma Cases,” May 6, 2005; online at http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,155608,00.html; accessed June 17, 2013.

Monsignor Robert Wurtz, a pastor involved in the crusade to canonize Father Baker, reportedly credited Herbert’s improvement to the drug cocktail rather than to Baker’s intercession. This effectively eliminated the Herbert case from consideration as a miracle (Blake 2007, 243; Koerner 2009, 47).

It should be emphasized that the Herbert case is unlike another high-profile one—that of Terry Schiavo, who was in a persistent vegetative state and so had her life ended by the removal of her feeding tube. Herbert’s situation was such that he was severely disabled but apparently minimally conscious—not vegetative (Hitti 2005).

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