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Do newspapers now determine miracles?

Craig Medred
Stephen Nowers photo

Once there were some standards for miracles. The hierarchy of a church, often the Catholic Church, investigated what events had taken place, and eventually made a determination as to whether the hand of God was involved.

Apparently no more. Today, in the world of what former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has labeled the "lamestream media," it appears the media itself can declare a "miracle," as Palin's hometown newspaper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, has now done. Over the Easter weekend, the paper began running a two-part series, catagorized under "news," on what it declared to be a "modern-day miracle" involving a boy named Christian whose family is of the Christian faith.

An accompanying editorial left little doubt about the paper's take on a story it first began covering last fall.

We'd hoped to share Christian's story in our Christmas edition," the editorial said, "but his miraculous life-after-death story seems even more apropos for Easter, a season that celebrates Jesus’ resurrection after three days in a tomb.

The boy's modern-day death and resurrection offers parallels to the familiar Easter story: only a powerful God could have made Christian’s damaged body whole.

Ignoring the theological debate over exactly how long Jesus was in the tomb, which isn't as clear cut as the Frontiersman makes it out to be, there is a bold claim here as to a "modern-day death and resurrection."

And this claim is based on precisely what? 

Apparently, this, and this alone: "Amber (Aldrich) never believed the doctors who told her Christian would likely have lifelong impacts from the 40 minutes his heart and lungs were stopped," the first part of the series says. 

That's it. There are no doctors quoted as to how long Christian's heart and lungs were stopped. Nor are any paramedics so quoted. There is simply the bold declaration from his mother that for 40 long minutes there was no oxygenated blood being pumped through her son's body.

Frontiersman editor Heather Resz, who wrote the story, said Wedneday that there is more. "I have paramedics I talked to,'' she said. "I think the dead thing comes from his not having any breathing or pulse.''

She said a paramedic at the scene, who doesn't need to be dragged into this, intimated that Christian was dead. The paramedic said he can't talk about the case because of state privacy laws, and noted that he wouldn't have been able to talk to Resz about the case because of those privacy laws. But Resz said her understanding after "interviewing" him was that Christian was dead.

"That was his point of view,'' she said. "Craig, I'm not a doctor. (But) it's possible to revive someone after they're dead."

That may well be, but it is far more common for someone to be revived from the gray area that exists between life and death. That is why the paramedics here couldn't have declared Christian dead because they are required by law in a situation like this to perform CPR for at least 30 minutes -- longer if there are suggestions of hypothermia -- before making such a declaration.

Why? Because, despite Resz's assertions, people aren't dead just because their respiration and pulse are undetectable. The brain can go on functioning for a considerable time after, most notably in the cold. In fact, the rule for emergency medicine in Alaska when treating victims of hypothermia is: "They're not dead until they are warm and dead.''

Hypothermia victims have survived in a state of what might almost be considered suspended animation for hours. One survived for more than six hours. No miracle was declared.

Christian was in the snow. He, too, had to be somewhat hypothermic by the time he was finally pulled out from beneath the truck where he had been trapped and taken to the hospital. He suffered no apparent brain damage, which all too often results when a person's heart is stopped for more than 10 minutes under normal conditions.

Christian's parents, like Resz, want to believe this makes his survival a miracle. It is fine they believe that. By all indications, they are good, God-fearing people. They are entitled to believe anything they want, and everyone should support them in their beliefs.

Did Frontiersman editor want a Mat-Su miracle?

But journalism isn't about what people want to believe, or at least it isn't supposed to be about that. Journalism is about a search for facts. The best journalism is sometimes, in fact, about rising above what you want to believe.

Resz did not want to entertain this discussion. Her defense of the Miracle in the Mat-Su was "that's the way it was described to me.'' Those were here last words before she hung up the phone.

Some colleagues tried to discourage me from writing about this. They know I harbor even a worse attitude than Palin toward journalists, as the ex-governor would say, "making things up.'' Those colleagues argued that the Frontiersman should be held to a different standard of fact-finding than, say, the New York Times.

The story about the Miracle in the Mat-Su, they argued, could have been a simple mistake. Resz is, as she says, "no doctor.'' Her conclusion as to Christian's death could have been based on some bad assumptions made on sketchy information. All of which one might be able to buy sans that editorial claim of a "modern-day death and resurrection."

This was no accident. Resz wanted there to be a Miracle in the Mat-Su, and so she created a Miracle in the Mat-Su. It was different in Baltimore in 2009 when 51-year-old Michael Richard Quarles died. He was shot in the head. Paramedics tried to save him. Then the paramedics -- medically trained professionals -- gave up and declared Quarles dead.

"...But the man showed signs of life about 30 minutes later and was then taken to the hospital,"  The Baltimore Sun reported. No one declared Quarles' survival a miracle.

Instead, here is what the Sun reported:

Officials from the nation's largest organization representing emergency medical personnel said mistakenly declaring a victim dead -- as was the case in Northwest Baltimore this weekend -- is rare but not unheard of. Jerry Johnston, the immediate past president of the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians, said statistics are not kept on the number of these incidents, but he is aware of cases in which someone was initially declared dead, only to later be determined to be alive. Johnston said those incidents often are used as examples when training new medics.

Paramedics often err if the patient has an extremely faint pulse, which can be hard to detect, Johnston said.


Could that have happened in the case of Christian Aldrich? Who knows. It's unclear what exactly Christian's medical status was when paramedics arrived on the scene and started CPR. It is equally unclear exactly how long they performed CPR before he was put on an air ambulance. But there is this in what the Frontiersman reported:

Family’s pastor Ronald J. Herring was praying with Jim, Christian's father, "when paramedics loaded Christian into the ambulance to take him to the emergency helicopter. He had no pulse.

"I threw my hands in the air, 'God, I gave you my son years ago as a child of the church. If you need him today, I give him to you freely,'" Jim prayed.

"When paramedics in the helicopter called on the radio a few seconds later to say they'd gotten Christian’s heart and lungs working and he was headed to Providence, Jim said he fell on the ground and thanked God."

Jim, like his ex-wife, Amber, and Christian -- who tells stories about sitting in the lap of Jesus in heaven -- wants to believe in divine intervention, too, which is all well and good. But is it the role of Christian's newspaper to declare that divine intervention took place?

Was Christian without a pulse for minutes or for seconds? 

Without any attribution, the Frontiersman declares that the child "was clinically dead for 40 minutes before paramedics got his heart beating again."

"Clinically dead" is a medically precise term that means there is no pulse, no respiration and no corneal reflex.  One can test for corneal reflex by touching the eye. There is no indication anyone ever did that in this case, and there would be no reason to do so.

Why? Because it's pretty obvious the first paramedics on the scene began CPR thinking Christian could be saved, and the CPR was continued until his heart began beating on its own. The paramedics should be commended for their unrelenting efforts to save Christian's life as should the medical professionals who got Christian to the hospital alive and the doctors who treated him there.

But that obviously doesn't make for as good a story as declaring the Miracle in the Mat-Su Valley. The Miracle in the Mat-Su makes for a headline you can't pass up:

'Heaven sent: 8-year-old dead for 40 minutes lives to tell about it'

The headline was enough of a catcher that Alaska Dispatch linked to the story before fully pondering the claims the story made. When the latter is done, the story becomes harder and harder to believe.

If God was watching over all these events unfolding in the Valley, why did Christian get run over in the first place? If God was controlling everything, why would he put Christian's body under the wheels of the truck?

Is it possible God wanted to provide material for a writer to sell for big bucks to Oprah's TV network? And, if so, would that be part of the same miracle pronounced by the Frontiersman, or would that be a second miracle?

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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