Since 1987, Audrey Santo, then three years old, almost drowned in her family's swimming pool in Worcester, Mass. Although she survived, her brain was severely damaged. She does not speak, and cannot eat on her own. She uses a ventilator to help her breathe. She returned home to live with her parents, Linda and Steve, who took care of her with the help of round-the-clock nursing care.
In 1993, Linda, a devout Catholic, had a strange experience. She says she saw a tiny tear coming down from a religious picture hanging on Audrey's wall. The house has now become a chapel full of religious icons and pictures, all of which, if you are a believer, inexplicably drip oil. Some are literally drenched in oil. To believers, this is a sign that Audrey, now 15, has healing powers.
Many believe the Santos' house is a holy place. They come to visit by the busload, and are shepherded to the converted garage of their unassuming three bedroom house. This garage is the destination of their journey.
Audrey's mother is a believer. So is Sue Martiros, one of Audrey's regular nurses. At first, she thought it was a scam. "The first night I worked 11 to 7 , I combed the whole area," she says with a laugh. She says she found nothing.
Father Emmanuel McCarthy, a Roman Catholic priest who is a close friend of the Santos', says he has checked out the house for signs of a hoax: "I looked at it every way you can look at it. I was right down to the canvas. There was no way oil was being injected into that picture."
As word of the mysterious happenings spread, people began believing that the comatose little girl had been singled out by God. It is a belief that Linda does nothing to discourage. "God takes such good care of her," she says of her daughter. "She's like an icon, a beautiful perfect icon."
Her room is now more a shrine than a bedroom. Until recently, visitors could view Audrey through a plate glass window. As the number of pilgrims visiting the house increase, so do the tales of mysterious healing. Thousands request the oil every year. The Santos' give it out for free, but they do accept donations. They also sell books and videotapes.
Whatever the source of the oil, tests show it is a mixture consisting mostly of olive oil.
The situation so alarmed the Catholic Diocese of Worcester that Bishop Daniel Reilly appointed a team of investigators to look into Audrey's case. The investigation is not finished yet. According to Father McCarthy, the Church has a tough standard: "Technically speaking, if you're talking about the Church, a miracle has to be spontaneous and complete."
One of those who believes is Andrea Pearson. Pearson believes that Audrey Santo cured her of cancer. "I know there are some medical explanations," she says"But in my heart, I know that I got a miracle." Last October, after fighting breast cancer for five years, Andrea received bad news: her cancer had spread into her liver and her bones.
She began to hear stories about Audrey and the strange healings. But there was a two-year waiting list to see her. Andrea didn't think she would live that long. But one day, a woman from Audrey's house called and said they could fit Andrea in the next day if she could make it. She and a friend, who was also ill, hopped on a plane and were there the next day.
At first, Andrea says, she was skeptical. But then they saw Audrey. "We got to look at her through the glass she remembers. "She's gorgeous. I mean, she's absolutely beautiful. She just has sort of this very peacefulness about herÂ…. As the day started to end, we both realized that perhaps this wasn't such a scam and that everything we had seen was real."
According to Andrea, just two weeks after she saw Audrey, a CAT scan showed that the cancer was gone. She thinks it was the visit, and the oil she had rubbed on her body in the area of her liver.
But was it really a miracle? Before she visited Worcester, Andrea started a new cancer treatment, herceptin, Andrea's oncologist, Dr. Daniel Moriarty, isn't willing to give all the credit to Audrey. He says that even before she visited Audrey, Andrea was showing a response to the drugs.
At Audrey's house, though, there was only one possible explanation. Andrea's recovery was added to the growing file of healings.
But then there was a cruel twist. A few months ago, Andrea suddenly had a seizure. Tests revealed that her cancer hadn't gone away after all. It had just moved, this time to her brain. How does Linda Santos explain this? "There's no rhyme or reason to God," she says. "Why would God choose somebody else with cancer to be totally healed and not choose Andrea Pearson? We don't know that and we're not responsible for that."
Audrey herself still thinks that the first cure was a miracle, and that Audrey has a gift from God.
What about Audrey herself. Will she ever be healed? Her mother never stops praying that her daughter will recover. She hopes for a miracle for her daughter: "I'd love for her to get up and run downstairs right now and say, 'Can I go to the mall?'"
Linda believes that her daughter has full cognitive abilities. Martiros agrees. She has asked coma specialist Dr. Ed Cooper to help her daughter learn to communicate with her hands.
Says Dr. Cooper: "If she can become consistent with movements of her hands, down for 'yes,' up for 'no,' or vice versa, it would be meaningful. Right now it's inconsistent." Cooper is using electrical stimulation to strengthen Audrey's muscles.
So far, there has been little progress, but Dr. Cooper is optimistic. And her mother is steadfast: "Every breath I take is a prayer for her to be up and doing stuff."
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