Jeremy Laurance: True happiness? Or was Kiki just smiling for the cameras?

Medical Life

Did you see the picture of Kiki, the eight-year-old boy pulled from the rubble in Haiti, after seven days entombed, greeting his mother with a wide smile and outstretched arms?

John Humphrys, of Radio 4's Today programme, described it as an "icon of hope", an "almost biblical image" that would stay in our minds long after the world had moved on from Haiti. It appeared in almost every newspaper and on The Independent's front page. "It captures the extraordinary power of the human spirit," Humphrys wrote in the Daily Mail.

I looked at the picture and I, too, felt the heart's tug of a dramatic rescue. Kiki seemed to express the triumph in his beaming face and raised arms, reflecting that of his rescuers. A living being – a child – had been seized from the ruins, rather than another mangled corpse.

Then I looked again and thought there was something odd. Kiki is eight years old. He had been buried for seven days. He had no food or water (except possibly rain water) and no comfort from a parent or other human being. There had been no one to soothe him, calm his fears, or urge him on. He had endured physical and mental torture. Alone. For seven days. Then he was brought out of his tomb and there was his mother. How would he greet her?

Kiki did so with a dazzling smile and outstretched arms, as if he were winning a race, or celebrating a school prize. It was a gesture of triumph and it was echoed by the outstretched arms of the rescuers who had dug him out.

But was it a true reflection of his feelings? What might he have felt after such an ordeal? He had been through intense terror, followed by intense relief. You might expect him to have shed a tear – or a river of tears.

Armchair psychology is a tricky game. But I cannot help wondering whether what we are looking at in the picture is a moment after Kiki's rescue when – his initial overwhelming emotional response past – he is able to greet his mother and his rescuers in a way that he, and they, would want remembered.

***

Cancer experts announced another advance last week – but it was the kind which you wonder whether they might have preferred to pass over in silence. A team of scientists from the Institute of Cancer Research in London found that a drug used to treat advanced melanoma, the lethal skin cancer, might actually accelerate tumour growth in a quarter of patients. So instead of curing patients, the drug killed them. Why? Because they had the wrong type of genes. In those with the right type, the drug is showing positive results.

This is more evidence of what doctors have known for years but is less familiar to the public. Using drugs to treat illness is like picking off an enemy in a crowd with a blunderbuss. You do a lot of collateral damage. We have long way to go to develop the medicinal equivalent of a sniper's rifle.

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