Saint Gerard Majella: another young victim of Marfan’s syndrome?

 

Brenes Salazar, Jorge A. M.D.

Department of Medicine, Division of Cardiovascular Diseases, Mayo Clinic, Rochester MN

 

Address for Correspondence:
Jorge A Brenes Salazar, MD
Division of Cardiovascular Diseases, Mayo Clinic MN
200 First St SW, Rochester MN 55905

Email: brenessalazar.jorge@mayo.edu

 

The short life of Saint Gerard Majella has been compared by some to a beautiful fairy tale for children: full of unexpected surprises and crowded with miraculous events. He was born in the small town of Muro in the south of Italy in April of 1726. Gerard found a passion for prayer and good deeds during his childhood, guided by his mother, who was a devote woman, and introduced him early on to the Catholic Church. He was expected to follow his father’s business as a tailor, but he would continuously seek his calling “doing God’s will”.


Twice he had applied for admission to the Capuchin monastery at Muro. But a glance “at his sunken chest and thin white hands”, and the Capuchins turned him down¹. He was told not to have the health or the stamina required for such a strenuous life. When he was 23 years old, he applied to the Mission of the Redemptorists during their trip to Muro. The young man pleaded to be admitted, but his “chronically ill” aspect was against him, and his mother and sisters did not want him to leave home. They actually locked him in his room, suspecting that he might follow the missioners. Indeed, when they refused his application and left town, he made a rope with his linens and climbed out of his window, and chased the missioners down the road. After roughly 12 miles, they saw a cloud of dust that was approaching them from behind. It was Saint Gerard, gasping for air, almost fainting and trying to yell: “fathers, please accept me”. Such insistence made the missionaries reconsider him, but their expectations continued to be low. His recommendation letter to his superior in Deliceto read this way: “Here we send a useless brother, in terms of fatigue, given his weak complexion, however, we seemed forced to offer him a chance giving his insistence and respectable fame in his home town”. Soon enough, they realized that his frail appearance was in profound contrast to his spiritual attributes and unbreakable will.


When we look at the portrait of St. Gerard, his body habitus was evidently slender, and it could be argued that this was solely related to fasting for spiritual purposes. However, a closer inspection of his anatomy as portrayed by contemporary painters reveals a long slender face, with enophtalmos (deep sunken eyes), downward slanting palpebral fissures, relative maxillary hypoplasia and some degree of micrognatia. The most striking feature, which catches the eye rapidly, is the presence of long slender hands with arachnodactily; the distal phalanx of both his left fourth and fifth fingers show an abnormal curvature while resting delicately over his chest, which could be related to increase joint elasticity. When we pay attention to the relative proportions, if St. Gerard extended his hand in front of the inert cranium that lies on the table, it could easily reach its vertex. All of these physical signs would be consistent with Marfan’s syndrome². However, these observations are subject to the many limitations of retrospective diagnosis, including the fact that the images that we have from Saint Gerard are not photographs, and therefore, were subject to the artist’s own perception of reality.

 

The list of miracles attributed to Saint Gerard is quite extensive, taking into consideration his premature death. He had become so famous in Naples that he was sent away to a retirement house in Caposele. He spent his last summer trying to collect funds for a new construction for the Redemptorists. But his health rapidly deteriorated “in the heat of Southern Italy”. The Rector of Materdomini was heartbroken when Brother Gerard came back to visit him in August of 1755. He was so worn and emaciated! “Cheer up, Father. It is God’s Will,” said Gerard with a smile. “We must do His Will with gladness.” We don’t find a detailed description of his symptoms at that time; cough, hemoptysis and dyspnea are mentioned by some historians³. It seems that his last weeks were “a combination of physical sufferings alternating with moments of extasis”. It would be interesting to speculate if these were manifestations of dilated cardiomyopathy with advanced heart failure or just due to tuberculosis, which has been attributed as his immediate cause of death. He died in October of 1755, and was canonized in 1904. He is now remembered as the Patron of pregnant women and children.

 

References

 

1) The Story of Saint Gerard, Page 1. (n.d.). SaintGerard.com. Retrieved February 11, 2013, from http://saintgerard.com/his_story_p2.html
2) Pyeritz RE. Evaluation of the adolescent or adult with some features of Marfan syndrome. Genet Med 2012; 14 (1): 171-177
3) Omer, E. (1999). St. Gerard Majella: the wonder-worker and patron of expectant mothers. Rockford, Ilinois: Tan Books.

 

Copyright Priory Medical Education Limited 2014 -

First Published December 2014

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