This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.
Watching the New England Patriots—trailing 21-zip in the second quarter, down 25 points in the third, 19 points in the hole with less than 600 seconds to go in regulation—rally to win the Super Bowl in overtime, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some mysterious science behind “the miraculous comeback”: something measurable, or at least point-to-able, that captures the transformation of human spirit that drives an individual—or, more inexplicably, a team of separate beings—to see “victory” when “loss” is flashing all around them.
What turn-of-a-switch lets the Cleveland Cavaliers, with backs against the wall in last year’s NBA championship series, take three straight from a seemingly charmed and unstoppable Golden State Warriors? What explains how, two months later, Britain’s Mo Farah could trip and fall in the Olympic 10,000 meters race, then get back to his feet and win gold? What explains the Cubs, Game 7, November 2016?
(I mean, seriously, the Cubs!)
And yet, more remarkable than even the Cubs’ World Series victory is Sharon Belvin, whom I interviewed last spring for a feature on Sean Parker.
Belvin, who in 2004 was a 22-year-old grad student in New Jersey, was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma, a disease that then typically killed five out of six patients within five years. She was given soft words and hard chemo, which in 2004 was pretty much what there was to offer.
“Her first IV infusions came in a toxic sweep on a Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. She got married that Saturday…Instead of the wedding dress she had picked out, she wore a white suit to cover the Port-a-Cath and tubes sticking out of her body. The cancer soon spread to her brain. Her chest cavity filled with 12 liters of fluid. Her body was breaking down. She couldn’t breathe.”
Then an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering offered Belvin a last-ditch hope—to be a human guinea pig for an experimental drug designed, it was hoped, to release the brakes on the body’s own immune defenses, allowing Belvin’s legions of home-grown T cells to attack the cancer. She got four infusions of the drug. The cancer disappeared and never came back.
Great science, you say? Absolutely. Hell yes. But still only a fraction of cancer patients at the advanced state Belvin was at, and given the drug Belvin got, experience the kind of medical “comeback” she did.
Almost no one recovers full verbal skills and motor function after being in a minimally conscious state for a long duration—a trauma brought on by serious brain injury. But this 39-year-old patient did…after 19 years in MCS.
Medical scientists have long marveled at—and done their best to understand—such rare recoveries across the spectrum of pathologies. But for now, the miracles of the human body, as with those of the human spirit, remain mostly inexplicable.
Which brings us back to the Super Bowl.
Sure, tens of millions of us last night tried to make sense of how the Pats pulled it off—we screamed, we tweeted, we threw nachos at the wall in both joy and anger. But As veteran Sports Illustrated writer Greg Bedard put it this morning: “For the players, coaches and personnel involved on the winning side, there’s none of that. They just relish being the last team standing in early February. There are no ‘What the heck just happened?’ stunned faces; only satisfied smiles and quiet moments.
Alright, fine. Let ’em enjoy it.