Do miracles really exist in this world? I’m not talking about somehow defeating the numerical odds or slipping through the cracks of statistics, like winning the lottery twice in a row, scoring a perfect hole in one on a difficult shot, or coming out unscathed from an accident that perhaps should have killed you. I mean real, honest to God miracles; feats of impossibility perpetuated by some unknown force or higher power. Do we live in a world where forces beyond our understanding can swoop in and alter our reality in such a way as to beat impossible, insurmountable odds, miraculously cure incurable sicknesses, or make the most unbelievable things occur? Is there some benevolent power that occasionally watches over us, guides us, and in some cases reverses the inevitable approach of misfortune and death? The answer to that question largely depends on who you ask, but one person who is sure to have an interesting answer is a boy who in the early 1980s stood at death’s door, beaten by sickness and incapacitated beyond all hope, only to merge from the dark void of oblivion unscathed, perhaps even aided by mysterious powers that we currently cannot even begin to comprehend.
It was December, 1982, three weeks before Christmas in a residential area of Philadelphia. This was a time of holiday cheer and good tidings for most, with Christmas lights strung up, people wishing each other happy holidays, and children eagerly anticipating the trove of gifts they hoped to surely receive from Santa, whether they were good boys and girls or not. It was one night during this typically jovial season that little 7-year-old Chucky McGivern came home from school sick with the chicken pox, probably not what he had had in mind for a Christmas gift. His caring mother, Nancy McGivern, put him straight to bed and hoped for the best. Over the next several days, Chucky’s condition deteriorated dramatically, his health on a downward slide as he became a pale husk of the jovial child he had been until one day he simply lost consciousness and refused to wake up despite his panicked mother’s best efforts. Only then would Nancy become keenly aware that whatever her son had, it was not a simple case of chicken pox.
Chucky was brought to the Rolling Hill Hospital, where doctors saw that he did indeed have chicken pox but were stumped as to what else could be wrong with him. The boy was subsequently transferred and admitted to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which was better equipped to deal with the situation. It was there that doctors were able to ascertain that Chucky was the victim of an extremely rare, degenerative condition known as Reye’s Syndrome, which affects the nervous system, liver, kidneys, and brain. The prognosis was not good, as the condition is almost always fatal for children of Chucky’s age, and the parents were told that the boy, who had slipped into a coma, had an extremely slim chance of survival. Nevertheless, the doctors did what they could. Chucky was hooked up to life support, with various tubes snaking through his nose, liver, and kidneys, and a bolt was inserted into his skull to relieve pressure that was building up on his brain. Other than this, all anyone could do was wait. Chucky’s parents were informed that the condition was in an advanced state, and that their son had less than a 10 percent chance of ever waking up at all. Even if he did beat the odds and snap out of it, it was believed that he would exhibit severe brain damage for the rest of his life.
Chucky’s parents, Nancy and Chuck McGivern, were aware that there was little they could do as their son lay slowly wasting away, entwined by tubes and wires, gasping for each breath through a tube in his throat hooked up to a ventilator. Although they were ostensibly religious, neither one of them had been to church in years, yet in the face of this impending tragedy they decided to turn to prayer in a desperate effort to save their son. They began to go to church regularly and prayed constantly. Some of their relatives gave them various religious medals, and one in particular caught Nancy’s attention; one that featured the likeness of St. John Neumann, a prominent religious figure who was the Bishop of Philadelphia in the mid-19th century and had been canonized in 1977 by Pope Paul VI. When Nancy was a child, her aunt had often taken her to the Shrine of St. John Neumann at Fifth and Girard, and she had warm, comforting memories of those days.
St. Neumann was said to behind a variety of miracles. When a typhoid epidemic wiped out thousands of lives in Philadelphia from 1891 to 1900, it was said that not a single person in the St. Peters parish where Bishop Neumann served was afflicted and this was attributed to him. In another case from 1923, an 11 year-old- girl in Sassuolo, Italy was miraculously cured of acute peritonitis as she lay on her death bed by the simple placing of a picture of Bishop Neumann upon her stomach. The girl’s condition had been deemed incurable and her sudden revival considered by the church a miracle without a rational, natural explanation. Yet another miracle believed to be linked to St. Neumann occurred in 1949, when Kent Lenahan, 19, was involved in a horrific car accident and his body mangled beyond hope. The man had been in a coma and considered to be doomed until his family received a piece of cloth from Bishop Neumann’s cassock from a relative. When the critically injured Lenahan was touched by the relic, he began an inexplicable and complete recovery over the next few weeks until he was completely healthy once again, walking out of the hospital on his own two feet. Nancy McGivern was well aware of these miracles, and so she decided to thread up this medal with the others to some safety pins and attach them to Chucky’s pillow as a sort of good luck charm to help him get well. In the meantime, the McGiverns signed over Chucky’s organs to be donated in the event of his death and waited, never leaving him alone in his room for long. It was around this time that a series of strange occurrences would begin.
Things started rather oddly when the father, Chuck McGivern was in the hospital waiting room late one night watching TV. He claimed that a poor looking boy of around 11 or 12 years of age wearing a beaten, threadbare plaid jacket, glasses and frankly looking rather rough around the edges came into the waiting room, stared at him for a moment, and then left without saying a word. It was very late at night, the kid had been alone, and he had been wearing ragged clothes that made him look like a homeless beggar. The father thought it was a bit weird and unsettling, but didn’t think much of it at the time.
Other strange things began to happen too. Nancy McGivern went into her son’s room one night and found the medal of St. John Neumann had been inexplicably turned face down. This was not a casual thing someone could do by accident, as it entailed undoing the safety pin, taking the other medals off, turning over the St. Neumann medal, threading it back onto the pin, putting the others back on, and closing the pin again. She placed the medal face up and left the room briefly, but when she came back the medal was turned over again, even though it seemed that no one had entered in her absence and she’s only been gone a moment. Nancy asked who had done it, but her husband, the doctors, and the nurses all denied having anything to do with turning the medal over. On many occasions the parents would leave the room and come back to find the medal mysteriously unthreaded and turned over no matter how many times they put it right again, much to their astonishment. This became a regular occurrence and no one could figure out what was going on.
The strangeness would not end there. On one occasion, Nancy went in to see her son and much to her surprise found a picture of St. John Neumann taped to the wall rather crookedly and sloppily, as if put there by a child. When she asked around to try and find out who had placed the picture there, no one seemed to know. It was around this time that a strange boy, perhaps the very same one Chuck McGivern has seen in the waiting room, made another mysterious appearance. Two doctors were tending to Chucky when they noticed a little boy of around 11 years of age standing in the doorway, a strange sight considering it was a secure quarantine zone because of the boy’s chicken pox. The startled doctors asked what the boy was doing there and he replied that he was there to see Chucky. Sensing something was awry, one of the doctors went to get security. The mystery boy silently slipped away and a complete search of the building turned up no sign of him. Security claimed that no one had come in. It was a complete mystery as to who the boy was, where he had come from, where he had gone, and perhaps more importantly how he had managed to waltz into a high security isolation ward without being checked or even seen by security. Doctors described the kid as wearing a rumpled plaid jacket, having mussed up hair, and wearing black rimmed glasses, eerily similar to the description given by Chuck McGivern of the boy in the waiting room a few days earlier.
As all of these bizarre events were unfolding around him, little Chucky McGivern’s health had been slowly deteriorating and he had contracted pneumonia on top of everything else. It had gotten so bad that Rev. Robert Roncase of St. Martin’s Church even came in to administer the boy’s last rites. Yet shortly after the appearance of the unexplained boy in his doorway, Chucky started to move. It was just a twitch of the finger or foot here and there at first, but it was a remarkable improvement for someone who was on their death bed and had been officially deemed a vegetable and unable to wake up. Later that evening, he was able to nod his head and respond to questions and not long after that he was sitting up on his own. When Chucky had regained complete lucidity and was able to talk, he recalled a vivid dream in which a boy had come to visit him as he slept and had kept him company through his ordeal, who he described as being around 12 and wearing black-rimmed glasses. The mention of the boy and this description startled his parents, who immediately recalled the mysterious young boy who had been spotted in the waiting room and even at the doorway to Chuckey’s hospital room.
The following day, Chucky was on his feet and walking around like nothing had ever happened. It seemed that although he had spent the previous week in critical condition with his life hanging by a thread, Chucky had been completely and miraculously healed. Just a couple weeks before Christmas, one week after being admitted to the hospital from which many thought he would never return, Chucky McGivern was released with a clean bill of health. Although the family was ecstatic that he was up and about again, they could not get the mystery boy from the hospital, who Chucky had apparently dreamed about, out of their head. Who had he been? In the meantime, Nancy McGivern hailed her son’s recovery as a genuine miracle, and took him to the Shrine of St. John Neumann to say a prayer of thanks. As they were there, they took a tour of the monastery and in one of the rooms hung a picture of St. John Neumann as a young boy. When Chucky saw the picture, he immediately froze in his tracks and pointed excitedly at it. When asked what it was about the picture that had caught his attention so much, Chucky insisted that it was the same boy who had come to see him in the hospital, who he described as his “best friend.” When Chucky’s father looked closely at the picture, he too was shocked, as indeed it looked exactly like the boy he had seen in the waiting room, minus the glasses.
Was Chucky McGivern the beneficiary of some remarkable higher power that reached out with miraculous purpose to save him? Are there higher forces operating all around us that watch and occasionally break through into our realm to set things right or to pull us from tragedy? Do real miracles exist? For Chucky McGivern and his family the answer is clear. Perhaps there are things that lie beyond our current knowledge of the universe, beacons of hope and healing in this world of death and darkness that we live in. It is with cases like that of Chucky McGivern that we can gain perhaps some bit of hope. Hope that there is never a point when we should give up. Hope that the end is not always as inevitable as we may deem it to be. Hope that yes, real miracles can and do exist. Whether miracles are real or not, that sure is a nice thought to have and may in and of itself be enough to keep some going in the face of tragedy.