April 26, 2011 -- In 2006, Jake Finkbonner almost died of a flesh-eating bacterial infection. His family believes he survived because of a modern-day miracle, which the Vatican is investigating as it considers a Native American who lived three centuries ago for sainthood.
While Jake's survival was a reason to be joyous and grateful, infectious disease experts said it was more likely due to the medical and surgical attention he received, not a miracle.
Five years ago, Jake, then 6, contracted a flesh-eating bacterial infection when he cut his lip during the final game of his basketball season.
"I fell down and hit my lip on the base of the basketball hoop," Jake, now 11, told ABC News Seattle affiliate KOMO.
The aggressive bacteria, strep A, had entered into Jake's bloodstream through the small cut, and doctors said he was fighting necrotizing fasciitis, a rare but very severe type of bacterial infection that can destroy muscles, skin and underlying tissue.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 percent to 15 percent of patients with invasive group A streptococcal disease die, and about 25 percent of patients with necrotizing fasciitis die from their infections.
Jake was treated in the trauma unit at Seattle Children's Hospital by Dr. Craig Rubens, a renowned pediatric infectious disease specialist who suspected Jake had been infected with strep A.
"It's like lighting one end of a parchment paper," Rubens told National Public Radio. "And you just watch it spread from that corner very fast, and you're stamping it on one side and it's flaming up on another."
Doctors said that it was difficult to stay ahead of the infection, and Jake's physical state worsened, KOMO reported.
"It got to the point where we called in a priest to give his last rites," Jake's mother, Elsa Finkbonner, told KOMO.
The Rev. Tim Sauer arrived and encouraged the family to pray to God through the intercession of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, who lived more than 300 years ago. A Native American who converted to Catholicism, Tekakwitha had smallpox, which had left her face scarred.
But her scars disappeared after she died, according to legend. Tekakwitha, beatified in 1980, is on the pathway to sainthood.
Sauer told NPR that he thought of appealing to Tekakwitha because, like Jake, she also contracted a disease that left her face scarred, and Jake was also of Native-American ancestry.
Investigating the Miracle
As his condition grew dire, Jake recalled what he thought would be his final hours.
"I went and saw God up in heaven, and I asked if I could stay in heaven because it was a beautiful place," Jake told KOMO. "But he refused to let me because he said my family needed me down here on earth."
The day that Jake's classmates prayed for him and a relic of Tekakwitha was given to the family was the same day the bacteria stopped spreading.
"I think it's a matter of a miracle," Jake told KOMO.
Now, five years later, Vatican officials are investigating the case to see whether Jake's recovery was a miracle. The Rev. Peter Paul Pluth, who is helping to coordinate the investigation, said it's a detailed process.
"It has to be rigorous," he told NPR, "because we do not want to submit to the pope a statement unless we are absolutely, morally certain that this case merits to be approved by him a miracle by God."
Some Doctors Say Jake's Survival Was Outstanding Science, Not Miracle
"He was extremely fortunate to be in an outstanding hospital receiving outstanding medical treatment," said Dr. Stanford Shulman, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. "Craig Rubens is an outstanding pediatric infectious disease specialist and an expert on group A strep infections. I think the fact that he was involved shows Jake really did get truly outstanding care."
Miracles are a difficult subject, said Shulman.
"We doctors don't want to take hope away from patients and families, but I would feel comfortable attributing this child's remarkable recovery to outstanding surgical and medical care."
And Dr. Marcus Zervos, chief of the department of infectious diseases at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, said that while necrotizing fasciitis is a very serious infection, it is treatable.
"It's very serious and associated with high death rates, but it is treatable and medical care and new antibiotics are able to treat patients successfully with many of these infections," said Zervos. "We don't see a recovery like this one every day, but patients who have made similar recoveries have been as sick as this."
Zervos said he does believe in miracles, and that God can work through hospitals, physicians and traditional medical care.
"But when I see something like this, I know it can be explained through the usual medical care that we give the patient through good ICU care or good antibiotics and supporting complications," continued Zervos.
Dr. Barry Farr, an expert in hospital infection control at the University of Virginia, said that an otherwise healthy child who has contracted an infection has an advantage than someone who is older and in worse health.
"An old pediatrician once humorously observed that 'kids get well so fast that it's important for a pediatrician to get treatment started before the kid gets well,'" said Farr. "His point was that young protoplasm often has an advantage when compared with old protoplasm.
"I view life itself as a miracle, but I don't usually think of a patient surviving an infection with modern medical care as being due to a miracle," Farr continued.
Zervos said the story is interesting and important to infectious disease news, and adds to the conversation of when miracles and science collide.
"We've made many successes in treatments of these diseases and preventing their spread," said Zervos. "What would really be a miracle is if we could eliminate the infection all together."