“Chance favors the prepared mind,” Dr. Carl June says in “Of Medicine and Miracles,” recalling the scientist Louis Pasteur’s famous quote about how he would often stumble upon his breakthroughs in vaccination and disease prevention. It is a humble acknowledgement that for all his considerable training to become an expert in leukemia treatment, Dr. June would need a patient as unique as his particular skillset to make a scientific breakthrough when experimentation often builds on success rather than failure and the stars need to align in such a way where a risk of a largely untested treatment is less of a concern than the potential for death.
The possibilities could be quite grim to think about, but director Ross Kauffman always tends towards optimism in his latest doc, built around the intertwined fates of Dr. June and Emily Whitehead, a young girl from Philipsburg, Pennsylvania whose parents Tom and Kari check her into the hospital after finding inexplicable bruises on her body and learn she has cancer. The “Born Into Brothels” and “E-Team” co-director doesn’t ever announce that their paths will cross, but it’s a savvy structural gambit when the complexities of the scientific calculation never get in the way of the human considerations involved as Dr. June and the Whitehead family are consistently drawing on life experience to make decisions that there is no other research to reference.
While Dr. June may have pioneered the use of regenerating T-cells as way to attack HIV, it is the reason he did it more so than how that becomes interesting, believing that it was worth trying as a cancer treatment for his first wife as her condition worsened. It wasn’t successful, with Dr. June’s deciding to change the trajectory of his career towards working in the labs rather than with patients, a shift that needs no more explanation because of the parallel drawn between the struggles of the Whiteheads to find answers for their daughter and only experiencing frustration. Although what Dr. June may ultimately suggest to them is radical by the medical standards of the time, with “Of Medicine and Miracles” all taking place around 2010, the common desire between doctor and patient to try what hasn’t been before is a result of shared pain and curiosity, which Kauffman and editor Hypatia Porter bring to the surface without ever feeling melodramatic.
A healthy appreciation for both the scientific method and the luck involved for Whitehead’s treatment to be successful separates “Of Medicine and Miracles” from most medically-themed docs, allowing for how one can surprise themselves in their reaction to fate, for better or worse and use it as fuel to change what could be seen as destiny. It’s a refreshing prevailing attitude that brings emotion into what could easily be a dry recounting of truly exciting advances in biology and while talk of T-cells and anti-inflammatory cytokines such as Interleukin 6 may threaten to put audiences at a distance, “Of Medicine and Miracles” pulls one in by putting a compelling story in human terms.
“Of Medicine and Miracles” will screen again at Tribeca on June 15th at 5:45 pm at the Village East and June 19th at noon at the Cinepolis Chelsea. It is also available to stream at home on the Tribeca platform beginning June 14th at 6 pm through the end of the festival on June 19th.