SkyNews(think CNN for the UK) just reported a miraculous story of a deceased infant being brought back to life by the touch of her mother (See “Mum’s Miracle Cuddle Brings Baby Back to Life”.) The mother had given birth to premature twins (at just 27 weeks) in Sydney, Australia. The babies, a boy and a girl weighed only 2lbs each, and while the girl, Emily was healthy, the boy, Jamie was not breathing. Doctors worked for 20 minutes to attempt to revive him before bringing him back to the mother saying, “We’ve lost Jamie, he didn’t make it, sorry.”
The woman reported that she took her shirt off and began to cuddle the stillborn baby. While she held him she talked to him softly, telling him about his family and the hopes and dreams they had had for his life. A full two hours after the doctor had reported him dead, the baby began to show signs of life. The first few gasps of the baby were explained as normal reflexes that can occur even after death. But the doctors were stunned when the baby finally opened his eyes, clasped his mother’s finger and began moving his head. Jamie survived that day and today, he is a healthy five month old.
What are we to make of this story? Is it an example of incompetent medical assessment? A miracle of science? A religious hoax? Or an urban legend? It is hard to get any sense of the truth out of a single news story. That is why medical interventions are based on randomized placebo controlled trial experiments across large populations rather than on what is reported on the 5 o’clock news. But as I have said before, science helps us understand what is normal, average, and common. It often fails at discovering what is possible.
At the very least, Jamie’s story provides a compelling argument for the importance of “kangaroo care” for a newborn. Kangaroo care is characterized by skin to skin contact with a newborn infant and is intended to stimulate the production of oxytocin in the child. Keeping the baby in contact with the mother after birth helps it to regulate it’s temperature, breathing and heart rate, and allows him or her to sleep longer and more peacefully. This may be one of the only health interventions relying on mere skin to skin contact to have been widely accepted by the medical community.
Because I work in the spa industry, where healing through touch is considered standard operating procedure, I am naturally interested in stories like this (see the article I wrote on “The Healing Power of Touch” for Organic Spa Magazine.) The research on “healing touch” for adult populations is limited, and the results for adults are not as conclusive as they are for children. But the science on healing through touch is growing. Research shows that touch (and particularly loving, kind touch) releases oxytocin in adults as well as infants, and is a mediator of stress relief, wellbeing, social interaction, growth and healing.
There is some evidence to suggest that the health benefits of a spa may have as much to do with this oxytocin effect from touch as it does with the therapeutic value of muscle tissue manipulation in a massage. One study showed that superficial touch was almost as effective as deep tissue massage in relieving pain as compared to a control group. This could be attributed to the “placebo effect” with the superficial touch giving the client a greater expectation that a treatment is occurring as compared to a “no-treatment” control group. But it could also be an indication of the oxytocin producing, stress relieving effect of light touch that has been shown in numerous studies. The release of oxytocin that is initiated by human touch has been shown to increase pain threshold, relieve pain, induce physical relaxation, and lower blood pressure (Law, Evans, Knudtson, Nus, Scholl & Sluka, 2008).
Jamie’s story contributes to this ever expanding body of evidence supporting the idea that human contact is essential for wellbeing. (Must read: A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness). Human beings are social animals. We are driven not only by our most primitive biological instincts but by our highest spiritual aspirations to reach out to one another to get that contact. Jamie’s mother literally used the power of touch to love her infant son back to life. Her story gives me hope, that in spite of all the stress in the world, we have the ability to reach out to one another with a little touch and a little love and make miracles possible.
References and recommended reading:
Field, T. (2003). Touch. Bradford Books, The MIT Press.
Lynch, J. J. (2000). A Cry Unheard: New Insights into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness. Baltimore, MD: Bancroft Press.
Moberg, K. U. (2003). The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love, and Healing. Da Capo Press.