The Power of Magical Thinking – by Brian P. Hudson (Writer@Large)

On the day that my daughter was born, my joy was tinged with anxiety. Dawn was a healthy baby, if a bit small, and she had no problems in the days following the birth; but because of an unplanned ultrasound four months earlier we knew that she had a kidney blockage, and if it hadn’t resolved itself in the womb she was going to need surgery. My little girl, barely 5 pounds at birth, was set to go under the knife before she was six months old.

Mutant or Miracle? You decide...

Mutant or Miracle? You decide...

I’ll spoil the ending for you now: she did not end up needing immediate surgery. Through a series of fortuitous events, her blockage has become a manageable condition that has put off surgery for a couple years or more. What fascinated me during this whole experience, though, was the magical thinking–that torturous logic the deeply religious use to find God in everyday events–reared its head in those around me.

In order to see “God’s hand” in events, I’ll have to flesh out the story a bit. I work for a college that trains ultrasound technicians, and as part of the training our students must scan an actual pregnant woman. My wife volunteered for scanning, and during the course of the training scan, the student discovered that our baby’s bladder wasn’t properly draining. The instructor in charge assured us that it was probably some sort of temporary ureter blockage, but that we should alert our midwife about it anyway. We did, and a subsequent professional ultrasound confirmed the blockage. We were informed in no uncertain terms that if it was a permanent blockage our baby would need surgery after birth.

At this point, people said we were “lucky.” It was lucky we had that second ultrasound, they reasoned, since our first hadn’t caught the blockage. After all, a blocked kidney can lead to kidney failure; better to know about it ahead of time and not when the baby got sick.

So the birth comes and goes. A few weeks later we take our little newborn in for a postnatal ultrasound, where they confirm that the blockage is still there. They also note that our daughter is a mutant; she has an unusual anomaly called a double ureter, having two tubes draining the right kidney instead of one. The blockage is in one of the doubled ureters. A complete blockage could have shut her kidney down, but because the blockage is in one of the double tubes there’s still drainage in the kidney. Surgery was still necessary, but the need was no longer urgent.

It was an uncommon mutation that helped mitigate an unfortunate condition, which meant my little girl’s kidney wasn’t going to fail anytime soon. The doctors wil wanted to remove it, but the urgency was diminished. Again, friends and coworkers told us that we were lucky, and they were right.

Of course, blockage still meant improper drainage and risk of kidney infection, which meant my little girl still needed to go under the knife. They sent us to a pediatric urologist to determine when the surgery should take place. He put her through more tests, one of which involved inserting a catheter into her bladder. During the course of this test, the catheter slipped up the blocked ureter … and promptly punctured the blockage.

A one in a million chance? Not exactly. The doctor told us that catheters can easily slip up the ureter during insertion. He also told us that she would still need the blockage removed at some point, because it was sure to return. But in the short term, the puncture meant that urine would flow more freely through the blockage. Better flow meant a low risk of problems, which meant that we didn’t need to rush a newborn infant into surgery. We could wait until she was a stronger, healthier toddler or pre-schooler.

This is the point where I had my encounter with magical thinking. What had up until now been “lucky,” all of a sudden became divine. “You should thank God for that one,” a coworker told me. “God was definitely looking out for her,” said another. Some of the comments were just in passing, the sort of “thank God” reactions one gets when anything unexpectedly good happens. But some were definitely more involved then that. One woman told me that she had said a prayer for my daughter, as if she’d somehow commanded God’s attention to my daughter’s plight. I had it suggested to me that the deceased family member that my daughter was named for must be “watching over her from Heaven.” One person who knows I am an atheist even said to me, “It kind of makes you reconsider, doesn’t it?”

The people I know and work with don’t normally come across as very religious, so this sudden spike in magical thinking caught me off guard. How was it that “lucky” had suddenly become supernatural influence? Detecting a condition early was just lucky as was having a useful mutation; heck, even the punctured blockage, by itself, they might have seen as happenstance. But somehow, the sequence of events—detection, mutation, and puncture—was not just a dodged bullet for my family, but some sort of divine guidance. I should be thanking Him for letting her avoid infant surgery.

At this point, I wonder: which part should I be thanking God for? For causing the catheter to puncture the blockage? That seemed to be the point that many people stopped seeing “lucky” and began seeing “God.” The doctors clearly stated, though, that catheters in this process routinely slide up the ureter, so can we really attribute it to supernatural influence? I think not.

Maybe I should be thanking Him for giving her a double ureter to minimize the danger of the blockage in the first place? I don’t see why, since fully 10% of the population has it already. And from what I’ve read since learning about her condition, a double ureter brings a higher risk of blockages anyway. If God wanted to help her avoid a kidney-damaging blockage, this generally pointless mutation would be a poor way of doing it.

What about thanking Him for “blessing” us with the additional ultrasound? After all, without that second scan, the blockage might have remained undetected until she began having health issues. But since that was a purely coincidental happenstance that resulted from my place of employment, I don’t see how a deity could have his hand in it.

Perhaps we should be thanking God for blocking her ureter in the first place, so we would be made aware of all his other little “miracles”? Somehow, I don’t think my religious friends would agree with that one.

In the end, it seems I should be “thankful” for the whole process—the miracle, in effect, of my daughter avoiding kidney failure. But if some meddling deity didn’t want her to get sick or die, why didn’t he just give her a normal, blockage-free ureter in the first place? After all, my son has never gone into kidney failure, either, but because there’s no dodged bullet in his medical history, no one’s attributing his survival to an interfering spirit.

In reality, my daughter caught a break, plain and simple. According to the National Kidney Foundation , one in 500 babes are born with some kind of kidney or urinary tract problem. Many of those problems are not detected until the baby becomes sick; many of those babies go under the knife; some even die. Due to fortuitous happenstance, my daughter was not one of them. That wasn’t any sort of divine intervention; it was luck, pure and simple, helped along by modern medical care.

If I should be thanking anyone, it should be the student whose sharp eyes noticed it in the first place. Or perhaps I should thank her instructor who taught her that a distended bladder was something to look for during an ultrasound. Or maybe I should thank the college who bought the ultrasound machine and allowed the class to offer free scanning. Or I could even thank George Ludwig , the man who founded the field of medical ultrasonography in the first place. Without his pioneering medical work, we wouldn’t have even been able to look.

But that’s the power of magical thinking for you: take fortuitous happenstance and apply its occurrence to a benevolent outside agent. I could just as easily say that the “miracle” occurred because being born a Scorpio on the cusp of Sagittarius blessed my daughter with luck and health in life, and have the same amount of evidence to support my side. Both explanations carry equal weight, and that weight is nil.

The honest truth is that my kid just got lucky–really lucky. Statistics tell us that in the same time frame as my daughter was being diagnosed, there were probably a lot of other newborns who were not; some of them probably even died from their undiagnosed kidney conditions. And it’s not like my daughter has avoided troube altogether. She’s currently on a nightly “therapeutic dose” of antibiotics to reduce the risk of kidney infection, and she still needs to have the blockage removed at some point, and no matter when that happens it’s going to be nervewracking, and it will carry the risk of complications or even death. She’s a healthy, happy little infant now, but at some point in the future she’s going to have a bad day. No amount of magical thinking will ever change that.

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