Detours to Happiness
Chapter 4, Soul Survivor
By Philip Yancey
Lepers in biblical times were required to say those words to warn other people when they are passing by. Not only did they suffer physical and social trauma, they had to shout that indignity to the world -- and to their own hearts.
Two thousand years have passed and the fate of millions afflicted with leprosy have not changed until Dr. Paul Brand came into the picture. Aside from Jesus, it was only he who was brave enough to touch and treat not only the dread disease, but also the individual souls plagued by leprosy.
Stories say that Dr. Brand was born in the Kollis Hill country of India. His parents were missionaries there who worked tirelessly not only in spreading the gospel, but actually working to help the needs of the indigent in their community. Paul's father was a doctor.
While local people were always welcome in the Brand household, one day three strangers came to the house and received a different reception. Their skin had patches of white, their fingers were but stumps and one didn't even have toes.
In amazement, Paul saw his father put on gloves before washing the feet of the strangers, put ointment on their sores, and bandaged their feet. His mother brought a basket of food for them, but kept well away.
When the strangers left, Paul went to pick up the basket but his mother's shrill "NO!" instantly drew him back. He watched in astonishment as the basket was burned and his father scrubbed his hands with hands with hot water and strong soap, and changed all his clothes.
That was the day that the child Paul Brand first knew lepers. That was the day the child of two loving parents learned fear.
The pain and shame that lepers receive not only from society but also from their families cannot be underestimated. Brand has met thousands of intelligent, delightful persons who were rejected, beaten, and cursed by their own families upon the first sign of the disease. In those days, rare would be a hospital who would allow victims of leprosy to enter their doors. Some doctors would consent to take a look at the patients -- but only from afar. If not for violence, lepers only received fear and disgust wherever they went.
Later interviews with patients of Dr. Brand would testify their cries -- and bewilderment -- when Brand treated them. For the first time in years, here are hands who actually touched them not with blows or revulsion, but with gentleness and intimacy. For a reason that may only be known by Dr. Brand and his Creator, Paul was able to go beyond the thousands of years of fear and prejudice and touch the human beneath the disease.
Dr. Brand was famous not only for the pioneering hand surgery techniques he developed, but for finding out the real reason why leprosy patients go blind, lose their feet, have claw-like hands, and disfigured bodies. Before him, everybody thought that the disease itself eats the flesh of the victims. Dr. Brand discovered that leprosy bacilli only attacks the nervous system, disabling the pain receptors and rendering the victims numb. The victims then injure themselves because they no longer have the most effective warning system ever designed in the cosmos -- our capacity to feel pain. The eye goes blind because it cannot feel its own dryness and therefore doesn't blink; the hand holding a hot pan doesn't let go; the feet would keep walking through the shattered glass because it cannot feel itself being lacerated. The injury becomes worse, and subsequent infections would finish the job.
"If there's a gift that I wish I could give my patients, it would be the gift of pain," says Dr. Paul Brand. While theologians and smart alecks try to figure out why a good God allows pain, Dr. Brand does the opposite -- he praises the Lord for such a wonderful gift. He cannot think of a greater gift for the wondrous human body in this fallen world, he says, than the gift of pain.
Yancey remembers his first interview with Dr. Brand:
How could a good God allow such a blemished world to exist? Brand had responded to my complaints one by one. Disease? Did I know that of the twenty four thousand species of bacteria, all but a few hundred are healthful, not harmful? Plants could not produce oxygen, nor could animals digest food without the existence of bacteria. Indeed, bacteria constitute half of all living matter. Most agents of disease, he explained, vary from this necessary organisms in only slight mutations.
What about birth defects? He launched into a description of the complex biochemistry involved in producing one healthy child. The great wonder is not that birth defects occur but that millions more do not. Could a mistake-proof world have been created so that the human genome, with its billions of variables, would never err in transmission? No scientist could envision such an error-free system in our world of fixed physical laws.
"I've found it helpful to try to think like the Creator," Brand told me. "My engineering team in Carville has done just that. For several years, our team worked with the human hand. What engineering perfection we find there! After operating on thousands of hands, I must agree with Isaac Newton: 'In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God's existence."
Yancey writes further: "Paul Brand consulted with Mother Theresa, served on committees with Gandhi's disciples, and knew some of India's traditional 'holy men.' In his own life, however, he chose the middle way of balancing off the material and the mystical, the prophetic and the pragmatic. Older acquaintances in the hospital of Vellore remember him not only for his spiritual depth and sacrificial service but also for his practical jokes, love for marmalade and mangoes, and fast driving. As I emerged from the 1960s, a decade never accused of a sense of balance, I needed an example of someone who lived a well-rounded life in the midst of modern society, not off in a monastery or ashram."
If for nothing else, one could admire Dr. Brand for living a counter-culture life even before that term was coined. Offered with prestigious headship of well-known medical institutions, showered with illustrious accolades such as the Lasker Award, Brand nonetheless chose the life where he knew he was called: with the shamed, with the rejected, with the hurt, with the hopeless, with those that no one else would have -- much like what his Savior did, 2000 years ago.