Val Kilmer Hospitalized With Potentially Deadly Tumor

Val Kilmer, the once upon a time matinée idol and veteran scene stealer who nearly stole Top Gun from Tom Cruise, is facing another health crisis, and this time the outcome could be fatal for the devout Christian Scientist actor. According to the media buzz, Kilmer, 55,  has been diagnosed with a tumor in his throat, but, as a Christian Scientist, he has so far refused surgery, preferring prayer and meditation to surgical intervention.

The Los Angeles born stage, screen and television actor has appeared in more than 73 films, including such blockbusters as the aforementioned Top Gun (1986),  as well as the late Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991),  the unseen Elvis Presley sound-alike in True Romance (1993), Doc Holiday in Tombstone (1993),  an admittedly forgettable Batman in Batman Forever (1995) and the multifaceted Simon Templar in The Saint (1997).  He is also known for having turned in killer performances in films in which he has played, appropriately, a killer, including 1995’s Heat, with Robert Di Niro and Al Pacino, as Phillip of Macedonia in Alexander (2004),  and Spartan, also in 2004.  He is the only man known to have played both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, in separate projects of course.

In recent years, however, the versatile Kilmer has been relegated to lesser roles in smaller, less noticed films, losing his status as an action hero to his considerable weight gain, but he remains one of the most well-known American actors never to have received an Academy Award nomination. Never a “Hollywood” actor, Kilmer, an avid outdoorsman, weathered into character roles at a fairly early age, having never really capitalized on his matinée idol looks.

According to the Religious Tolerance website, the Church of Christ, Scientist, an organization founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879, advocates spiritual healing through prayer rather than medical treatment.  In some cases, Christian Scientists have abjured pharmaceuticals, vaccinations and surgical intervention, preferring to rely upon Christian Scientist practitioners to pray with them.  Over the years, there have been persistent reports about Christian Scientist celebrities – most notably Muppets creator Jim Henson – dying after they refused medical treatment but most of these cases have not been substantiated.

In Henson’s case, he had fallen away from the Christian Science Church while he was still in his twenties and contemporary reports indicated that, while he was no longer a practitioner, he did not want to take time away from his intense schedule to seek treatment. Christian Science celebrities include entertainers Joan Crawford, Doris Day, Robert Duval, Ginger Rogers, Jean (Edith Bunker) Stapleton, Ellen DeGeneres, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, and Robin Williams, none of whom have succumbed due to a lack of medical care.

While there is virtually no record of the number of Christian Scientist adults who died from a lack of medical care, there is a very different story with respect to the children of Christian Scientist families.  In 1998, a study conducted by Pediatrics, a journal for pediatric medicine, reported that, from 1978 to 1998, 172 children whose families subscribed to faith-healing “sects” probably died as a result of the failure to provide adequate medical care.  In 142 of these cases, there was a 90 percent probability of survival with adequate medical care.  Another 18 children would have had a 50 percent chance of survival with the correct medical care.  The study did not break down the percentage of children who came from Christian Scientist families.

Christian Scientists are far from alone in their opposition to medical intervention for their children, but the Church of Christ, Scientist and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are the two best known members of this category.  According to the Iron Chariots, a watchdog group, there are at least 22 other sects that have similar beliefs and among whom deaths from medical neglect have occurred.

Christian Science itself may be on the wane.  According to the Church itself, there are only 85,000 actively practicing adherents, down from a 1940 census of more than 250,000, but that hasn’t stopped the Church from maintaining an extensive network of  more than 2,000 “Christian Science Reading Rooms” throughout the United States and around the world.  The Church is well-known for having political muscle out of proportion to its size and, despite attempts to divest them of their tax exemption, it remains a recognized nonprofit, religious institution.  The group has been successful over the years at gaining draft deferments for its members on the quite reasonable grounds that you cannot order a man into combat who will not accept medical care when wounded, but the Church has also argued, with occasional success, against laws requiring juvenile vaccinations, and has assisted in the defense of Christian Scientists who have been tried for murder and manslaughter for their failure to obtain medical care for their children.

In the current medical environment, with an increasing array of vaccines and other treatment for increasingly arcane medical conditions, invasive and often injurious exploratory procedures frequently used to limit medical liability in the event of a malpractice suit, and the growing number of medications that sometimes appear to do more harm than good, it is easy to understand the appeal that faith healing holds for many people. When every other treatment option has already failed, it sometimes seems to make good sense to try faith as a treatment of last resort, but that may not be true. Those who advocate or proffer faith healing as an option often contend that faith healing only works when used instead of, rather than in addition to, or after, medical interventions, which sets up a potentially deadly either-or dichotomy between good medicine and good faith.

You don’t have to be Christian to succumb to faith-healing. In what may have been the most extreme example, the death of Steve Jobs, a practitioner of Eastern meditation disciplines, has been attributed to his conviction that he could heal himself of pancreatic cancer through meditation, fasting, juicing and a strict vegetarian diet.  The bitter irony of his death was that Jobs, unlike Steve McQueen and Patrick Swazey (both of whom also followed Eastern meditative disciplines)  and many others who have been stricken with the usually deadly cancer, had a rare form of the disease (a neuroendocrine islet tumor) that could have been forestalled or even cured by a combination of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, according to Forbes Magazine.

The hardest sell of all is to convince people that lifelong religious beliefs could become deadly convictions for themselves or the members of their families. Ultimately, it comes down to a simple premise:  Everything in moderation, and that includes both medicine and religion. Val Kilmer has played heroes on stage and screen, providing fantasy-based role models for two generations of children.  His illness now gives him an opportunity to play a hero in real life by modeling the most appropriate responses to a life-threatening illness. How he decides to play that role may determine whether he lives or dies, but he might want to bear in mind that there are no re-takes available for this scene, and remember that there are children watching.

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