In the first minutes of “Born into Brothels” director Ross Kauffman’s simple but immensely moving “Of Medicine and Miracles,” one of the world’s foremost cellular engineers stares into the camera and shakes his head. “It’s hard to say that you’re trying to cure cancer,” he says. “It sounds foolish coming out of your mouth… may not even ethically sound.” His name is Carl H. June, and he’s been fighting cancer for more than 40 years. Not in himself, but in his patients, in his late wife, and in the research laboratory where he rechanneled his energies after the grief made it too difficult for him to interface with sick people directly. He knows better than anyone that his foe is beyond formidable. Maybe even unbeatable. But you never know. Life finds a way.
Not always. Almost never, in some cases. Sometimes so rarely that even the world’s most determined scientists might doubt that it can happen at all, and credit it to destiny when it does. But just often enough to allow for the possibility that it could — just often enough to make the search for hope seem less foolish than surrender, and reveal a lifetime’s worth of failures to be mere detours on the unfathomably winding road to success.
“Of Medicine and Miracles” may not be a work of high art, but this ugly cry of a movie doesn’t need to be — not when its primary focus is on the crucial role that emotion can play in the advancement of science. A straightforward documentary about the strange twists of fate that brought a doctor together with his career-defining patient, Kauffman’s film encourages even the most desperate hope that cancer inspires from its patients and their loved ones. If you know what that hope is like to have, you might know how soul-emptying it is to lose. And if you know how much it hurts to lose, you might understand how remarkable it is to see a movie with the power to give it back.
So far as this film is concerned, that process starts with the Vietnam War. Dr. June never planned on becoming an oncologist, but he was naturally more interested in saving lives than ending them. Hoping to never set foot in Hanoi, he joined the Naval Academy upon getting drafted — lucky for him, the fighting stopped just before he was set to graduate. For his service, the Navy sent him to medical school at Baylor College of Medicine, where he was free to pursue an interest in biology that eventually found him studying transplantation science at the outset of the AIDS crisis (it was Dr. June’s lab that discovered the CD28 molecule as the major control switch for T cells). He found love, started a family, and enjoyed the best years of his life before sickness followed him home. In the wake of his wife’s death from ovarian cancer, Dr. June retreated into his research at UPenn, obsessively studying if Chimeric antigen receptor T cells from HIV patients could be genetically modified to target (and “serial kill”) cancer cells. The rewards of his work were few and far between.
Meanwhile, in another part of Pennsylvania, Tom and Kerry Whitehead were starting a family of their own. Their daughter Emily was born in the mid-aughts and was a perfectly healthy girl until some funny bruises appeared on her body when she was six. Devastated beyond measure, the Whiteheads initially took comfort in the news that Emily’s leukemia was highly treatable. Alas — as Dr. June explains to us from his well-lit kitchen during a relaxed Sunday morning interview, at once humbled and undaunted — cancer is cruelly unpredictable.
“Of Medicine and Miracles” alternates between these two stories every 10 minutes or so, contrasting the snail-paced nature of Dr. June’s scientific research against the life-or-death urgency of Emily’s illness. It likewise contrasts the gentle stoicism of a tireless lab doctor against the irrepressible vitality of a six-year-old patient (these two characters were perfect foils for each other long before they ever met).
Dr. June’s segments are mostly conveyed through talking-head testimony and a smattering of archival footage; they traffic in abstracts, ghosts, and elements of microbiology smaller than the eye can see. While Emily’s parts also involve some personal interviews that Kauffman recorded for the film — in this case, with the girl’s deeply empathetic parents — her story is largely told through home video footage that Tom and Kerry Whitehead recorded throughout Emily’s illness (from around 2006 to 2012). It’s harrowing, suspenseful, and as real as the sight of a child clinging to a life that’s betrayed her at every turn.
Watching this footage would be unbearable — and possibly exploitative — if not for the propulsive sense of forward movement that “Of Medicine and Miracles” generates from cutting between its two major characters. Everything about this documentary, from the choice of its title to the ethics of making it, combine to suggest that Kauffman hasn’t assembled a snuff film. And yet, neither Emily’s cancer nor the treatment that Dr. June is hoping to develop for it are stable enough that you can take a happy ending for granted.
The suspense that Kauffman generates from the most granular details of these stories is heavy enough to crush your lungs, and only justified because of the film’s preoccupation with the contours of hope, and the bizarre circumstances by which it’s galvanized into action. There’s no telling how many other Emily Whiteheads died before this one survived. But the sheer array of coincidences, premonitions, and ripples in time required for Dr. June to find her when he did — and to know how to pull her back from the brink of death — are enough to shake your cynicism to the core (imagine the “swing away” moment from “Signs,” minus the screenwriting). And that’s all Kauffman wants to do: To sell you on the idea that a cure is worth pursuing. That hope is worth the hardship of losing it. A lesser film would suggest that everything happens for a reason, “Of Medicine and Miracles” simply maintains that nothing would happen without one.
“Of Medicine and Miracles” premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.