How Do Meaningful Coincidences Aid Medical Healing?
Through physicians, patients, and relatives, synchronicities can be helpful.
With its reliance on evidence-based treatments, the practice of Western medicine is becoming increasingly rational, logical, and non-intuitive. Or so it appears. I found evidence that intuitive knowing through synchronicities is also fitting within the practice of Western medicine. Following are several case examples illustrating the use of synchronicity and serendipity in the practice of Western medicine. They involve not only physicians but also patients and their relatives who in surprising and unexpected ways find ways to solve their medical problems.
An Otolaryngologist’s Stories
Otolaryngologist James Schemmel, MD sent me these two anecdotes.
While operating with a physician assistant of mine in the morning, she asked me if I’d ever done a cricothyroidotomy. I haven’t had to do this in the emergency room or in the field. Doing emergency tracheostomies under controlled circumstances in the operating room is not uncommon. We discussed how this would be done in the emergency room. We thoroughly went through the procedure. That night at 6 o’clock I was doing a cricothyroidotomy in the emergency room on a patient who had a drug reaction and lost his airway. The rehearsal with my physician assistant made the procedure more efficient and less anxiety provoking. I was unexpectedly prepared.
Waking up early on a Friday morning short of breath was a feeling I’d never had before. It was 5 AM. I got to work at six. While doing my usual morning surgical schedule, I was called from the emergency room regarding a patient of mine with neck cancer, who was having issues with breathing. That afternoon I performed a tracheotomy to secure his airway. The next day we talked. He explained to me that he woke up at five in the morning short of breath at the same time I did. I told him my story of waking up early short of breath at 5 AM. He then told me that he was ready to go home and be with his family. He had accepted the fact that he was dying. He now knew that there was something greater, and he was at peace.
A Psychiatrist Deviates in His CME
Each year physicians in the state of Virginia are required to do 30 hours of continuing medical education every year. One online program offered a section on sleep apnea which is peripherally related to psychiatry in that the person may present with depressive symptoms. Patients with sleep apnea often present with thick necks and are overweight. The next day I did an intake interview on an overweight man with a thick neck and depressive symptoms who was often tired. I referred him to a sleep clinic where they diagnosed sleep apnea.
Alexander Fleming and Two Petri Dishes
Pharmacology is filled with examples of serendipitous discoveries (Meyers, 2007). The most famous of these is the discovery of penicillin.
In 1921 microbiologist Alexander Fleming had a cold. His nasal drippings landed on a petri dish and created a halo of inhibition in the bacteria growing in the dish. In 1929, he noticed a similar halo of inhibition where a golden fungus had landed on another petri dish growing bacteria. By noticing this repeated series, he discovered the mold juice that became known as penicillin. Getting from this observation to the production of massive amounts of penicillin for infected wounded soldiers of WWII took decades of serendipities Patients may serendipitously find themselves in the right place at the right time as illustrated by these three examples from Miracles We Have Seen by Harley Rotbart (2016)
While touring the hospital as part of his pastoral rounds, Father Carl had a major myocardial infarction in the elevator. The door opened with Father Carl on the floor and opened to the cardiac intensive care unit where the cardiologist was making his weekend rounds. Father Carl was immediately treated and recovered.
The Volunteer Patient
A retired man signed up to be a volunteer patient for medical students. After repeated practice exams, they discovered he had stomach cancer which would not have been diagnosed this early in the course of the disease.
The Right Place to Intern
A young woman had been having alarming symptoms for five years. She saw many doctors who offered wrong diagnoses. She took a job interning at a cancer center. At the last minute, she was assigned to a different ward than she had been originally assigned. Her symptoms included dizziness, lightheadedness, intermittent facial swelling, and periods of vision and hearing “blackouts”. She stopped a head and neck surgeon who worked on that unit, asking if he could explain her symptoms. Not only did he make the correct diagnosis of a rare problem (a tumor at the base of her neck surrounding her carotid artery) but he also was one of the few surgeons in the world who had experience with the difficult operation to remove the tumor. She recovered well from the 17-hour surgery. She could have chosen other hospitals in which to intern. She could have been assigned to another floor at the last minute. She could have asked other surgeons. Instead, she found the right one at the right time.
And relatives can use meaningful coincidences for life-saving help
A daughter read a novel describing an uncommon symptom of a heart attack—burning lungs. Her father picked her up at the airport and on the way home he mentioned that his lungs were burning. She quickly took him to an emergency room which led to successful emergency surgery. (Beitman, 2022)
These anecdotes are but a few of the many examples illustrating the use of meaningful coincidences in the practice of Western medicine. During a recent webinar, the alumni of the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona enthusiastically embraced elevating the use of meaningful coincidences in the practice of medicine.
Meyers, M (2011) Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Major Medical Breakthroughs in the Twentieth Century. New York: Arcade
Rotbart H (2016). Miracles We Have Seen. Deerfield Beach, Fla: Health Communications.
Beitman, B (2022). Meaningful Coincidences: How and Why Synchronicity and Serendipity Happen. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions