A Prayer Before Dying
Astonishing Story of a Doctor Who Subjected Faith to the Rigors of Science
- and Then Became a Test Subject Herself
THIRD-MOST ODDS-DEFYING, EYE-POPPING DISCOVERY IN THE LIFE AND WORK OF
ELISABETH TARG, MD
In July 1995, back when
AIDS was still a death sentence, psychiatrist Elisabeth Targ and her
co-researchers enrolled 20 patients with advanced AIDS in a randomized,
double-blind pilot study at the UC San Francisco Medical Center. All
patients received standard care, but psychic healers prayed for the 10 in
the treatment group. The healers lived an average of 1,500 miles away from
the patients. None of the patients knew which group they had been randomly
assigned to, and thus whether they were being prayed for. During the
six-month study, four of the patients died - a typical mortality rate.
When the data was unblinded, the researchers learned that the four who had
died were in the control group.
All 10 who were prayed
for were still alive.
A lot of studies had
investigated the effect of prayer on healing, but they were
methodologically sloppy and their findings couldn't be replicated. In July
1996, Targ began a confirmation study, one with a larger sample and a more
exacting protocol. It is widely acknowledged as the most scientifically
rigorous attempt ever to discover if prayer can heal.
By this time, triple-drug
therapy for those with AIDS had begun, and quite miraculously AIDS
patients stopped dying. So rather than just measuring mortality, the
replication trial also tallied the occurrence of 23 AIDS-related illnesses
that appeared during the six months of the study, from ulcers to
Forty patients were
recruited. They filled out questionnaires, had photos taken, and signed
consent forms that indicated they had a 50/50 chance of being prayed for
by faraway psychic healers. They were free to pray for themselves and have
family and friends pray for them as well - the trial design assumed
everyone would get a "baseline" amount of prayer from loved
ones. Their blood was drawn, and a computer matched them to a statistical
twin - a counterpart with a similar CD4+ level, age, and number of
previous AIDS-related complications. The computer randomly assigned one of
each pair to a control group and the other to a treatment group.
The photos of those in
the treatment group were sent to 40 healing practitioners, ranging from
rabbis to Native American medicine men to bioenergetic psychics. These
healers performed their rituals one hour a day for six consecutive days.
Each week for 10 weeks they rotated, so each test-group patient received
distant healing from 10 practitioners. The healers kept logs and were not
paid. They never met the subjects in person.
The photos of the control
group were kept in a locked drawer.
Six months later, the
data was unblinded.
SECOND-MOST ODDS-DEFYING, EYE-POPPING DISCOVERY IN THE LIFE AND WORK OF
The research results
showed that the subjects who were not prayed for spent 600 percent more
days in the hospital. They contracted 300 percent as many AIDS-related
illnesses. That's a pretty sensationalistic way of saying those who were
prayed for were a lot less sick. Here's the somewhat less-sensational way
of framing the results: The control group spent a total of 68 days in the
hospital receiving treatment for 35 AIDS-related illnesses. The treatment
group spent only 10 days in the hospital for a mere 13 illnesses.
This begs all sorts of
questions, which we will get to, but for the moment, consider the
The chance of this
occurring randomly is less than 1 in 20, meaning it is statistically
There was no placebo
effect. For the patients, being less sick didn't correlate with believing
they were being prayed for by the psychic healers. Not even close. Nearly
55 percent of both groups imagined or guessed or believed they were being
prayed for - and they did no better than the others.
Targ had a pedigree. She
graduated from Stanford Medical School, did her residency at UCLA, and, at
the time of the study, was an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF.
The study, while
controversial, eventually passed the scrutiny of peer review and was
published by the Western Journal of Medicine.
Targ was news. She
appeared on Good Morning America and Larry King Live and was written about
in Time. She instantly became a star in the New Age community - not as
famous as doctors Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil, and Larry Dossey, but more
respected because of her scientific rigor.
Although few doctors have
read the study or know its details, it has achieved renown and is
routinely cited - not as proof that prayer works, exactly, but as evidence
that there's some connection between spirituality and healing.
VARIOUS QUESTIONS THIS BEGS
Is the "prayer
effect" even theoretically possible?
Are these psychic healers
who I think they are?
How did a reputable
doctor come to risk her reputation studying the paranormal?
What could be more
odds-defying than this?
EVEN THEORETICALLY POSSIBLE?
Targ refused to
speculate. Her position: Use the scientific method to find out if an
effect exists before trying to analyze how it works. For years, no one
knew how morphine or aspirin worked - just that they were effective. The
understanding came later.
She presented her data
dozens of times at conferences but never offered a hypothesis. She enjoyed
its mystique, its unknowable nature. Even in private, she almost never let
herself be drawn into these discussions. Her coauthor on the study, Fred
Sicher, a psychologist, is an enthusiastic believer in the prayer effect,
and he would get into long arguments with their biostatistician, Dan
Moore, who took the role of skeptic. Targ never joined in. Her boyfriend,
Mark Comings, was a theoretical physicist. He felt that an
eight-dimensional universe could explain how a healer in Santa Fe could
influence a patient in San Francisco: In our ordinary three-dimensional
world, healer and patient appear far apart, but in one of the as-yet-unmeasurable
extra dimensions, they'd be in the same place. Targ would shake him off -
speculation wasn't for her. She had patients to care for.
Although other people
invoked her work as proof of God, Targ thought of it as proof of only one
thing: that this should be studied more.
THESE PSYCHIC HEALERS?
The usual wackos - but
experienced wackos. On average, they had 17 years' experience, and each
had treated more than a hundred patients from a distance. Many had
graduated from a bioenergetic healing school on Long Island run by Barbara
Brennan, a former NASA physicist. They had a variety of religious
backgrounds, from Jewish to Christian to Buddhist to shamanist; however,
their method of prayer was not an appeal to a higher power. Rather than
ask God for help, the healers were directed to send positive healing
energy, to direct an intention for health and well-being to the subject.
The point was to test the ability of a person to affect another remotely,
in a one-to-one relationship.
Wackos at the other end
of the religious spectrum frequently interrupted Targ's speeches at
conferences, sometimes by shouting vitriol, sometimes by asking accusatory
questions. They would shadow her through restaurants, sit down at her
dinner table, lecture her on how the power of faith is not to be subjected
to the rigors of science, how God is not to be questioned. They were
afraid she might succeed, and reduce their god to a physics phenomenon.
They were equally afraid she might fail, and discover nothing's there.
Here is a list of expert
quotes from articles that have been written about Targ:
"Elisabeth is our
hero. She's a wonderful, groundbreaking researcher." - Dr. Mitchell
Krucoff, Duke University
has shown that people who believe in God or in prayer generally fare
better than those who don't. What remains unproven is whether prayer
itself makes a difference."
- Dr. Herbert Benson, Harvard Medical School
"Nobody would dispute that for a
great many people, religion provides comfort in times of distress, medical
or otherwise. But there is no really good, compelling evidence that there
is a relationship between religious involvement and health."
- Dr. Richard Sloan, Columbia University
Question 1: Based on
these quotes, what would a reader of an ensuing article likely conclude?
a) That most
doctors think her research is a bogus waste of time and money.
b) That doctors
are evenly divided but open-minded about the prayer effect.
Question 2: Which is
closest to the truth, a or b?
1) b; 2) a
YOU MIGHT WANT TO KNOW
ABOUT HER UPBRINGING
"She had more
permission to be psychic than anyone in history," proudly offers her
father, Russell Targ, who in the 1970s conducted CIA-funded experiments in
extrasensory perception at Stanford. Subjects in his lab attempted to
describe objects hidden inside boxes and tried to get better at it through
repetition, as if it was a learnable skill, like riding a unicycle. During
the Cold War, his psychics would sit in a chair and calm their minds until
they received visions and diagrams of certain military bases in Russia.
Russell had an ESP
machine, an early computer that asked subjects which of four colors they
thought would randomly appear onscreen. Targ began training on the machine
at age 10. When she played hide-and-seek with a girlfriend, Targ would
attempt to find her by means of clairvoyance. She was expected to call out
what was in her Christmas presents before opening them; if she guessed
incorrectly, her father teased her: "What's wrong with you?"
"I expected her to
be intelligent, polite, and psychic," says Russell. He was a force.
He was famous. He had helped invent the laser while at Lockheed. Her uncle
was the world chess champion, Bobby Fischer. Greatness was assumed.
And Targ was exceedingly
bright. By the time she entered Palo Alto High School, she'd already
skipped two grades. At 12, she was helping a Stanford researcher stick
electrodes into monkey brains to examine hemispheric specialization.
That's also when she conducted her first human experiment: demonstrating
that left-handed people make more spelling errors than right-handed
people. At 13, she tested crayfish feeding reflexes. In high school, she
cofounded the debate team. "Truth through dialog" was her motto.
She graduated from high
school at 15, in 1977. Fluent in Russian - as well as French and German -
she got a job in a psychology research department at Stanford, translating
studies from the Soviet Union. Since Russia was an atheist country,
parapsychology didn't carry the religious taboo it did here, and she was
exposed to a lot of it. In her first semester at Pomona College, she
conducted a study that took her father's favorite experiment - attempting
to describe objects hidden inside boxes - and subjected it to
double-blinded, randomized scientific rigor. This time, neither subject
nor experimenter knew what had been placed in the box. Her teacher hated
it; she transferred to Stanford.
To her best friend,
Janice Boughton, Targ simply seemed open-minded, influenced by those
Russian studies she'd translated. "Parapsychology was her hobby, as
if she played the trombone."
During college, she would
fool around with notions of being able to manipulate events in the near
future. She called it Associative Remote Viewing. Hoping to be awarded
grants for her research, she would associate that grant with an ordinary
object, such as a vase or a teddy bear; then she and her friends would
visualize this vase or teddy bear frequently, believing that the
visualization would make the desired outcome more likely. She used a
variation on this method when she got accepted to Stanford, and later,
when she and Comings were trying to find an affordable house in San
She also put a lot of
stock in her own intuition and dreams. All through her life, she had a
recurring dream in which a birthday cake with 42 candles appeared (once,
it was 42 birthday cakes). Targ became convinced this was a sign that she
would die. At 42. Next year. 2003.
All of which raises the
question: Does her backstory as an ESP hobbyist make us regard her work
with some suspicion? It has to - in the same way that her Stanford Medical
School degree affords her legitimacy. The whole point of randomized,
double-blind trials is to eliminate bias. On TV, Targ presented herself as
just another medical researcher, but if she spent her entire life in
search of the paranormal, it's not surprising that she eventually found
traces of it.
Targ originally chose to
study AIDS because it was a "gnarly disease," medical science's
During the AIDS pilot
study, one of the patients developed brain cancer. Amazingly, this patient
did not die and eventually made a full recovery. As it turned out, he had
been in the treatment group - he had been prayed for. Fred Sicher, Targ's
coauthor, reminded her of this patient after a confirmation study was
completed. Although AIDS was no longer a death sentence, brain cancer
Could a healer 1,500
miles away really shrink a brain tumor?
Targ learned all she
could about a type of brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme.
In 2000, she applied to
the National Institutes of Health's Center for Complementary and
Alternative Medicine for $1.5 million to cover two 150-patient trials -
one on brain cancer, and another confirmation study on AIDS. The NIH had
never granted money to study distant healing. But people with brain cancer
were dying, and nothing seemed to work. Her grant was approved.
The data from the trials
will not be available for at least three years. Her work is a linchpin in
the history of scientific research; if these trials find a prayer effect,
it will open the door to much more. If they fail to find one, this kind of
research will retreat beyond the fringe.
WE KNOW ABOUT BRAIN CANCER
Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM)
is the most malignant of cancers. For those with a grade-4 tumor, survival
rates are uniformly poor. Only 2 percent live more than three years. The
average lifespan from diagnosis is 12 months - and that's for patients who
receive surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. Without intervention,
patients live about six months.
GBM is one of the rarest
cancers. In the US, about 7,000 people die from it every year. (Far more
develop cancer of the brain as a result of metastases originating in some
other organ, but that's different.)
GBM, it's not the
brain's neurons that are cancerous, it's the cells that feed and
physically support them - the neuroglial cells. The tumor can double in
size every 10 days.
It is the cancer we
understand the very least. We have no clue what causes it or who is likely
to get it.
Chemotherapy offers scant
hope. The most recent drug enlisted to fight brain cancer is Temodar. In
clinical trials, Temodar slowed the progression of some GBM tumors, but
its effect on life expectancy was insignificant.
THE MOST ODDS-DEFYING, EYE-POPPING DISCOVERY IN THE LIFE AND WORK OF
Targ was 40. She'd always
wanted a family. She and Comings made plans to get married, in May 2002,
and in March she took a leave from research to begin in vitro
fertilization treatments. After the first round of eggs were implanted in
her uterus, she began to notice that it was hard for her to pronounce
words containing the letter b; one morning, in the mirror, she noticed
that the left side of her face had gone slack. The usual line of diagnosis
would suspect a stroke - yet she felt fine. She'd never had a physical
malady - not even bad eyesight or a single cavity. Could it be a symptom
of the IVF? She went to the emergency room, not wanting to take chances.
They said it was nothing. It persisted. She was scared. They took an MRI
of her brain. "Call back for the results tomorrow." She called.
They asked her to come in. "Bring your boyfriend."
Targ could read the MRI
herself. She'd become an expert. She knew exactly what to look for,
exactly what she was looking at.
In her brain, small
star-shaped cells were dividing.
It was a coincidence of
The tumor appeared to be
small and near the skull - it would be easy to remove. Her doctor thought
it might be diffuse astrocytoma, a survivable type of brain cancer not as
deadly as glioblastoma. Reason to hope! Spread the word! But this is
science, which always looks twice. She went back to the hospital for a
This MRI showed the tumor
mass near the skull was connected by a tendril to a larger lesion in the
thalamus, several twisted layers down, which would be impossible to remove
without cutting Targ's brain in half. Her cancer was upgraded from grade 2
to grade 4. Mitchel Berger, her surgeon, wanted to operate immediately.
Five days after the initial diagnosis, she was wheeled into surgery at
UCSF, where Berger spent six hours performing the craniotomy. Much of the
tumor could not be excised.
When she woke up, her
close friends and family were crowded around her bedside. They hugged her,
stroked her, showed no fear. They told her not to worry. Her fellow
researchers joked that they would make her the poster girl for their
cause. Of course she would pull through. She was their leader.
Then Berger came in and
told her that the tumor was, indeed, GBM. It would take a miracle to keep
her alive. He recommended she begin radiation treatments. She considered
She went home, to the
house she shared with Comings in Bernal Heights. Her voice was two octaves
higher - "like Marilyn Monroe on helium," she joked, and so she
rented a bunch of Marilyn Monroe movies. Otherwise, she seemed
miraculously fine. She responded to email and talked on the telephone in
the afternoons. Each morning, she followed a disciplined schedule to get
her energy flowing: 6 am, qigong; 7 am, yoga; 8 am, walk; 9 am,
One night, 10 days after
the surgery, Targ came down to the living room, where Comings was working.
She sat in his lap and cried as she told him her fear: "Knowing where
this tumor is located, there's a good chance I will end up with thalamic
pain syndrome. It's the worst thing one can possibly get."
Two days later, the early
symptoms began. Pain on her left side. Needing a lot of assistance to
walk, then needing a wheelchair. She could no longer see the computer
screen, let alone focus her eyes - indication the tumor had reached the
optic nerve, which runs through the thalamus. She went to the hospital,
and another MRI revealed that the tumor was spreading in great long
tentacles over the corpus callosum, from the right brain to the left.
Berger described it as "galloping," and he insisted she begin
five-day-a-week radiation immediately. This time she relented.
THE HEALERS SHE BELIEVED IN ANY HELP?
They tried. Word of
Targ's illness had spread worldwide. Web sites kept track of her progress
and made it seem that she would survive. Healing circles everywhere prayed
for her. On Wednesday nights on a hill above Silicon Valley, friends and
followers gathered in prayer. Many had never met Targ, but they knew her
work and thought of her as their patron saint. They had fought off death
themselves, or they had lost loved ones, and had felt the power of prayer
in their own battles.
Her bedroom turned into a
circus. Healers from everywhere showed up wanting to help. It was rarely
peaceful and quiet. There was Phillip Scott, a Lakota sun dancer who
burned sage; Nicolai Levashov, a Russian psychic who waved his hands;
Harriet Bienfield, an acupuncturist with rare Chinese herbs; Desda
Zuckerman, an energy worker who used techniques inspired by the ancient
methods of the Miwok peoples. The reverend Rosalyn Bruyere phoned often,
trying to get on Targ's schedule. And, of course, there was her father,
Russell, urging her to meditate, calm her mind, go to that place.
Targ tried. She didn't
believe that any particular one of these healers had the power to cure
her, but she believed in the general notion that her life was in the hands
of a mystical force. She knew her medical doctors had practically no
chance of saving her life. We are optimistic beings - we choose to live -
and our hope has to vest in something.
In the future, there may
be a breakthrough in screening procedures and chemotherapy regimes so that
brain cancer is somehow treatable. But that future is no help today. To
science, Targ is just a data point. On the value of her life, on the
possibility of saving it, science faded into a mute bystander. So she put
her faith in these healers, and some tried to take advantage of it.
One was a man who claims
to be the last existing Druid. Targ felt he really had a gift. Now she
needed him. But he was stuck in France, recently deported. He offered to
help if she would clear up his INS problems; then he wanted Comings to get
him a job at the NSA in counterterrorism. Then he called again; this time,
he offered to help for free, if Targ would convince another family to pay
him $250,000 to save their dying loved one.
Nicolai Levashov urged
Targ not to have radiation. He argued that it was killing her healthy
brain cells. The radiation was painful; it left purple burns on her scalp.
She dreaded the late-morning sessions. Levashov insisted he had been able
to stop the cancer telepathically and isolate it inside a membrane. An MRI
showed the tentacles had retreated; this was almost certainly due to the
radiation, but Levashov claimed credit for it. His words finally won her
over. One morning, she woke up and announced, "That's it. I'm not
going to submit myself to the fire-breathing dragons." She picked up
the phone, called the radiology department, and told them, "I feel
like you're burning me at the stake!" She stopped going.
A week later, the pain
worsened, and she checked herself into the hospital. Now admitted, Targ
would receive radiation whether she liked it or not. So one morning, the
orderly arrived at her room to wheel her to radiology. Targ was wearing a
Viking hat over a gold foil wig and waving a staff that had once belonged
to an African shaman. She pronounced, "I am going to slay the
The orderly didn't
recognize her. "Who are you?"
"I am a psychiatrist
on the staff of this hospital!" she stated proudly.
Why did she join the
circus? As the cancer progressed, Targ felt increasingly guilty that she
was letting the movement down. Forget the year and a half most people get.
Her charts told her she had only months. To send all the healers away
would signal the end of hope.
So she let the circus go
on, even though its zaniness brought chaos rather than peace. She ate her
miserable macrobiotic gruel, and she meditated as best she could despite
the excruciating pain. There was a poster on the wall in her hospital room
on how to go about adopting a baby. She read it in tears, knowing even if
she survived they would never let her adopt. So she and Comings decided to
get a puppy. And they had the wedding exactly as planned.
On May 4, she and 150 of
the Bay Area's parapsychology royalty converged in Tiburon, on waterfront
land owned by the Audubon Society. She could barely walk down the aisle.
She'd had a craniotomy and was missing her hair. Her wedding dress had to
be refit twice because she'd lost so much weight. The left side of her
face was not working properly. Yet she sat nobly and beamed. When most
people get married, there's a part of the ceremony about always sticking
together, for better or for worse. Targ's worse was already upon her.
There would be no honeymoon. Making a lifetime commitment in the face of
that tragedy left no eyes dry.
Back at the hospital, she
wore her ring proudly.
She had one friend with
whom she let her guard down, let herself be a normal dying person. When
her friend walked into the room, they would both burst into tears.
"What are we going
to do!?" they cried.
chocolate," Targ once confessed to her friend. "Sneak me
"Why? Jesus, if
you've only got four weeks, don't make it torture. Enjoy what you
"I don't want them
to know." She was supposed to be macrobiotic.
Her friend became angry.
There was too much pressure on Targ to be that poster girl. Targ didn't
think of it that way. She was a doctor. She knew her bounds: When someone
is about to lose a loved one, never deny them their faith.
Even if you are that
TOO FEW PEOPLE KNOW ABOUT
TARG'S FAMOUS AIDS STUDY
That her study had been
unblinded and then "reblinded" to scour for data that confirmed
the thesis - and the Western Journal of Medicine did not know this fact
when it decided to publish.
Her famous study was not,
as its reputation suggests, designed to measure the number of AIDS-related
illnesses. Targ and Fred Sicher had targeted their study to measure
mortality but were caught off-guard by triple-drug anti-retroviral
therapy, which became common practice one month into the six-month trial.
When biostatistician Dan Moore broke the randomization code to unblind the
data, it told them nothing - since only one patient had died, the data was
Moore brought Targ and
Sicher into his office and showed him the data on his computer. Moore
thought this new triple-drug therapy was nothing short of a medical
miracle, the triumph of science. It was saving lives! But Targ and Sicher
didn't want to see it that way. Targ asked him to crunch the numbers on
the secondary scores - one a measure of HIV physical symptoms, the other a
measure of quality of life. These came out inconclusive; the treatment
group didn't score better than the control. Not what they wanted to find.
In dismay, Targ called her father. He calmed her down, told her to keep
looking. She had Moore run the mood state scores. These came out worse -
the treatment group was in more psychological stress than the control
group. Same for CD4+ counts. Targ flew down to Santa Fe to attend a
conference at a Buddhist retreat run by her godmother. When she called
back to Moore's office, Sicher answered. Moore was crunching the last data
they had, hospital stays and doctor visits. "Looks like we have
statistical significance!" Moore announced. Sicher told Targ, who
turned and yelled out to her friends and the conference.
Later that week, Moore
met with an AIDS physician at California Pacific Medical Center. This
doctor thought distant healing was bogus but agreed to give advice. He
remarked that the length of hospital stays wasn't very meaningful.
Patients with health insurance tend to stay in hospitals longer than
uninsured ones. He pointed Moore to an important AIDS paper that had been
recently published. It defined the 23 illnesses associated with AIDS. He
told Moore they ought to have been measuring the occurrence of these
illnesses all along. Moore took this list to Targ and Sicher. There was
only one problem. They hadn't collected this data.
They gathered the medical
charts and gave them to their assistant to black out the names of the
patients. This done, Targ and Sicher began poring over the charts again,
noting the data they hadn't previously collected. Since Sicher had
interviewed many of these patients (up to three times), Moore worried
Sicher could recognize them just by the dates they came to the hospital
and what they were treated for. Sicher admitted he could (there were only
40). He had also seen which group each patient was assigned to, treatment
or control, but he swore he didn't remember and maintained he was
therefore impartial. (Sicher remembers this differently. He insists he
couldn't recognize the patients from their charts and never knew which
group each was in.) Targ told her boyfriend she was worried about Sicher's
impartiality, but she took him at his word, even though Sicher was an
ardent believer in distant healing, by his own frequent admission. He had
put up the money himself for the pilot study ($7,500), had paid for the
blood tests. He had a vested interest in the outcome.
This isn't what science
means by double-blind. The data may all be legitimate, but it's not good
form. Statisticians call this the sharpshooter's fallacy - spraying
bullets randomly, then drawing a target circle around a cluster. When Targ
and Sicher wrote the paper that made her famous, they let the reader
assume that all along their study had been designed to measure the 23
AIDS-related illnesses - even though they're careful never to say so. They
never mentioned that this was the last in a long list of endpoints they
looked at, or that it was data collected after an unblinding.
I learned all this from
Dan Moore and confirmed it with Mark Comings. Moore seemed unaware how
explosive his version of the story was. "I was always troubled over
the sifting it took for the data to hold together," he said. "I
think Fred and Elisabeth missed the real story, which was the difference
between medical science and alternative medicine. Triple-drug therapy was
literally saving lives. We were only looking at secondary things."
With this information, I
reread the paper with an awe for how carefully they chose their words.
Only with the benefit of this hindsight do holes emerge, ones that had
been clouded by the scientific language and statistical commentary.
David Spiegel, who runs
the PsychoSocial Research Lab at Stanford, was the primary reviewer of
Targ's paper for the Western Journal of Medicine. Targ's work, he said,
deserved its reputation as the best-designed study measuring distant
healing. Then I told him about the procedural flaws.
"I'm even more
troubled by the multiple endpoints than the unblinding," he said with
increasing concern. "It's a little post hoc. Normally, we accept the
standard that a finding must have less than a 1-in-20 chance of randomly
occurring. When you're on your third or fourth attempt, it's much more
likely a 1-in-20 event will occur, so the standard has to be higher. You
divide the alpha by the number of attempts, thus 1 in 60, 1 in 80, et
cetera. There was no indication of this recast standard."
"It does change her work considerably. It puts it into more of an
exploratory study, rather than a confirmatory study. It would be wrong to
say it'd been proven."
WHAT ABOUT THE PILOT STUDY, IN WHICH THOSE WHO DIED WEREN'T
"TREATED" WITH DISTANT HEALING?
Age was a confounding
variable. Most of the 20 participants were in their mid-twenties to early
thirties, but four were older. Three in their late thirties, and one in
his sixties. Those oldest four patients died. They were all in the control
In other words, the study
provided fairly convincing evidence that if you had AIDS back in the
mid-1990s, the older you were the more likely you were to die.
THE DETERIORATION OF TARG'S HEALTH
MADE THE SLIGHTEST DIFFERENCE IN PEOPLE'S CONVICTION THAT PRAYER WORKS
Not at all, because
people who devote themselves to the thin line between life and death don't
just measure "healing" as saving a physical body. Those who've
watched a lot of people die learn to find their victories in good deaths.
Your body might be dying, but you can still repair your relationships, old
emotional wounds. You can restore parts of your personality that you had
let wither. You can become a better person, even as your body goes.
Targ was one of the first
people to know that she would die quickly. Gradually, people around her
came to accept this. Even those who had never met her became fairly sure
something was up, because there were no more encouraging updates posted on
the Web site that tracked her recovery.
And they continued to
pray - to heal her soul - so that she might die with the kind of peaceful
bliss and tranquility she desired. Even if she couldn't live, they wanted
her to die rightly, to be a poster girl for the right kind of death. At
peace, not in pain. In the arms of those who loved her, not in the cold
clutches of hospital care. To let go freely, to embrace the other side
when she was ready.
More generosity: They all
wanted to be a part of her death, and she gave this to them.
They moved Targ from her
hospital to a farm in Portola Valley that had been important to her
mother. She stopped the radiation.
When she was suffering,
she would telephone her godmother, Joan Halifax, a Buddhist priest, and
With a few weeks to go,
she was troubled by her inability to meditate. She cried out to a friend,
"My mind hasn't quieted!"
A week later, she could
only communicate through hand squeezes and eye blinks. She'd tapered off
her pain medication but was not in pain. It was possible that her pain
center was being affected by the cancer. It was also possible that her
soul was becoming detached from her body, getting ready to depart.
"Do you know it's
me?" her friend Adrianne Mohr asked.
Two squeezes. Yes.
"Is it busy inside
One squeeze. No.
"What's going on? Is
it getting spacious?"
"Are you there
She'd always preferred
situations that couldn't be explained - she liked the mystery. Targ's
research was designed not to find answers but to force us to behold the
inexplicable, to admit our limits of narrative. And in her death, she
succeeded grandly. She gave us an incomprehensible mind-bender - how can
it be only coincidence that a doctor who did not believe in coincidences
was afflicted by the very cancer she was studying?
HER RESEARCH LIVE ON?
Targ's colleagues are
seeing her work to completion. The brain cancer study has been taken over
by Andrew Freinkel, and her third AIDS study by John Astin. Both doctors
are sympathetic to the cause and are still enrolling patients at
ALL, IT'S HARMLESS, RIGHT?
medicine, the usual assumption is "If it helps, great - it can't
But it can. Consider the
Russian psychic Nicolai Levashov. He urged Targ to cease radiation
treatment and then convinced Comings that the cancer was no longer killing
her; it was the necrotic cancer tissue, Levashov insisted, that was
poisoning her body. It had to be cut out or she would die. Comings wasted
the last month of his wife's life on a wild goose chase, desperately
calling every brain surgeon in the country, begging them to perform this
surgery. In her final week, he made an appeal to the tumor board at
Stanford. He gave them her MRIs and medical charts. The board met on
Thursday; they made a decision but didn't call until the next morning.
he was told. "We've looked carefully at it. We disagree with what
you've been told. The tumor growth is killing her. We can't do the
"You're too late
anyway," he returned. "She died last night."
The time for miracles had
run out on Elisabeth Targ. It was a scary moment for the uninitiated, her
lungs suddenly gasping for air, trying to hang on, hyperventilating,
nearly barking, spasming for more than half an hour. But this literal last
gasp is how most die, and Comings knew this, so as he held her in his arms
he felt relieved that she would soon be free of the illusion that is this
He didn't call the
coroner right away. He laid her body out on her bed, and the next morning,
friends gathered around her and circled in prayer. They took photographs.
It helped them, somehow, to see her resting in peace, and they wanted a
picture to remind them later, when they would inevitably struggle with the
tragedy of a life cut short. The aura of mystery that always surrounded
Targ did not end at her death. She died at 11:11 pm, exactly 111 days
after she was diagnosed. The meaning of that numeric alliteration was just
beyond their reach, but it titillated, as Targ's work always had. And then
talk turned to those dreams of birthday cakes with 42 candles. Elisabeth
Targ died two weeks short of her 41st birthday. Not evidence of anything,
but too close to just ignore, too close not to ponder.