You cannot help but be moved by Of Medicine and Miracles. This is an in-depth documentary of a thrilling achievement: an attempt to cure cancer by using cutting-edge medical science. This story is told through the prism of one patient, young Emily Whitehead, who was diagnosed with leukemia when she was only 6 years old. When the standard course of treatment fails Emily, her health quickly worsens. Out of options, she is given the chance to enroll in a promising, but risky clinical trial.
The documentary benefits from direct interviews with Emily’s parents. Their emotional re-telling of events is incredibly moving. Their urgency and desperation are palpable. The audience also peers behind the curtain at the vast medical infrastructure supporting Emily’s treatment – the researchers, physicians, nurses, regulators, and the extended care team. The expression “it takes a village” will truly resonate differently for you after viewing this documentary.
You will be inspired, yes, but also frustrated. Of Medicine and Miracles also provides a clear-eyed perspective on the dysfunction plaguing the medical system. While the documentary takes great pains to showcase the innovation at the core of Emily’s treatment, it is equally clear that her life was often in the balance due to incredibly frustrating circumstances. Emily’s local care center does not recommend she seek out a clinical trial – it is only because her family shows the courage to solicit a second opinion from a leading pediatric facility (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) that Emily is even offered a chance at a new treatment. Not everyone has the luxury of such a facility within driving distance. A critical last-minute care decision is shown to be possible only because members of Emily’s care team have read the right medical journal articles. This documentary shows us a miracle, yes, but also demonstrates that this miracle finds the light thanks to a foundation of privilege and luck.
Ross Kauffman’s documentary is an impressively balanced effort. It provides an incredibly intimate look at a family undergoing an incredible challenge, and the way this family is at times equally supported and challenged by our country’s medical structure. I left it both inspired and enraged.