Just because he believes in the power of traditional medical science doesn't mean longtime Wheaton internist Dr. Scott Kolbaba can't embrace a faith in powers beyond that.
"I'm an ordinary doc," begins Kolbaba, 68, who has been practicing medicine for 35 years. "I take care of sore throats and diarrhea and heart attacks and strokes and whatever comes by, and I love it."
He knows how to diagnose ailments and prescribe the preferred treatments. But a decade ago, he had one of those cases that required something beyond his usual methods. A patient had abdominal pain and underwent the accepted blood tests and a gallbladder ultrasound. The tests came back normal, but the man's pain continued. Then came an odd epiphany.
"I woke up in the morning knowing he needed a lung scan," Kolbaba remembers, noting that nothing indicated that test was appropriate. "I just had that overwhelming feeling that I really could not explain."
The patient was flying out of town that afternoon, but Kolbaba insisted on the lung scan.
"Good call," the radiologist congratulated Kolbaba after the scan showed a massive blockage in a pulmonary artery that might have killed the man had he flown. "You probably saved his life."
Moved by the "miraculous" good fortune, Kolbaba wondered if other doctors ever had "unusual experiences."
"Doctors don't talk to each other about these kind of things," Kolbaba says. Asking his physician friends and other doctors, Kolbaba soon had more than two dozen stories he compiled in a book, "Physicians' Untold Stories: Discover the Miracles in YOUR Life!"
An orthopedic surgeon says one of his patients reported floating above her body and accurately recounted everything that doctors and staff did after her heart stopped. An emergency room doctor reported a patient who was calmed by the arrival of dead relatives. A palliative care doctor says a dying man reported seeing three young women in white dresses dancing happily. A pregnant woman shuns a potentially fatal treatment at the last moment, and tells her doctor that her dead grandmother warned her.
These kinds of supernatural stories are as old as human civilization, says David San Filippo, an associate professor at National Louis University and author of "An Overview of the Near-Death Experience Phenomenon." Physical and psychological reasons might explain away a few stories, but San Filippo says some stories can by explained only by the "transpersonal," or an experience that is "spiritual."
Kolbaba, who is Mormon and a member of The Church of Latter-day Saints in Naperville, says most doctors attribute the "miraculous" nature of these stories to God.
"All the doctors believe in science. We're scientists," Kolbaba says. "But this does not conflict with science."
Former surgeon and current DuPage County Coroner Dr. Richard Jorgensen tells a story of how his dream about the death of a friend led that man to lifesaving heart surgery. Ophthalmologist and Wheaton College Board Chairman Dr. David Gieser tells how he was hospitalized for days with excruciating pain from a soccer-related kidney injury in high school, only to have the pain disappear at the exact moment a group prayed for him.
"It was either total coincidence, or the hand of God," says Gieser.
Wheaton orthopedic surgeon Dr. Stephen Heim tells about a wrong turn on a ski slope and an unlikely decision that led him to save an injured skier who otherwise would have frozen to death.
Kolbaba acknowledges that many wonderful people die in spite of prayers and pleas for divine intervention, that bad things do happen to good people and that science remains at the heart of medicine.
"You don't do crazy things, but I'm paying more attention to the thoughts I get," Kolbaba says, noting that advice is good for everybody, not just physicians. "If you have a feeling you should do something worthwhile or good, pay attention."
Kolbaba and his wife Joan support an orphanage in Romania, where the couple adopted two of their seven kids, now ranging in age from 18 to 41. Kolbaba also grows champion mammoth pumpkins, winning the competition in Sycamore the past two years. He says that he didn't write his book to make a statement about religion.
"I don't think I made it too preachy. I just told stories," Kolbaba says of his book. "My goal is to show people there is something else out there. There is a lot of sadness in the world, and I want people to have some hope."