By the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
One of the most significant books that I have read is Pain: the Gift Nobody Wants by Dr. Paul Brand & Philip Yancey. Dr. Paul Brand was a world-famous leprosy surgeon who has spent most of his life caring for the forsaken lepers in India. He performed countless medical miracles, enabling people with leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) to live healthy and productive lives.
Dr. Brand’s book was endorsed by Dr. C. Everett Koop, a former Surgeon General of the United States, who bestowed on Dr. Brand the Surgeon General’s Medallion. Dr. Koop said that when he wonders who he would like to have been if he had not been born C. Everett Koop, the person who comes to mind most frequently is Paul Brand.
One of Dr. Brand’s greatest breakthroughs was the discovery that people with leprosy do not have ‘bad flesh’ that just rots away by itself. In fact, their flesh is just as healthy as yours or mine. They are usually not even contagious. What they lack is the ability to feel pain. As the blood flow is cut off from key parts of their body, their nerve endings die. With the death of their nerve endings comes the death of their ability to sense danger to their bodies. Leprous people live a virtually pain-free existence. Many of us would do anything to live a pain-free life. Yet in fact, the absence of pain is the greatest enemy of the leper. Again and again they wound and impale themselves. Yet they don’t feel a thing.
Dr. Brand spoke movingly about little Tanya, a four-year-old patient with dark, flashing eyes, curly hair, and an impish smile. She seemed fine as an infant. Then when she was a year and a half, her mother came into her room. She noticed her daughter finger-painting red pictures on the floor of her playpen. Suddenly her mother realized that her daughter had bitten off the tip of her finger and was drawing with her own blood. Because of her leprosy, Tanya felt no pain even when she damaged herself. I wonder how many of us as parents have ever thanked God that our own children can feel pain?
We in the west live in a culture that has a remarkable ability to shut down pain in our lives. People in North America consume over thirty thousand tons of aspirin a year. North Americans, who only represent 5 percent of the world’s population, consume over 50% of all manufactured drugs, one-third of which work on the central nervous system. We are the most advanced society in the world in terms of suppressing pain. Yet the more we try to shut down pain, the more pain strikes back.
When we refuse to listen to the pain in our bodies, we invariably begin to destroy ourselves. Just think of the number of famous football, basketball, and hockey stars who have damaged themselves for life by going out on the field, still injured, with the help of painkiller injections. If leprosy is the inability to feel pain, then alcohol and drug addiction, which deaden our pain, are forms of modern day leprosy. The greatest damage that pain-dead alcoholics and drug addicts do is the damage they do to their spouses and children. That is why I am so grateful for the gift of AA and related 12-Step groups. I wonder how many of us as parents have thanked God for the ability to feel our family’s pain?
As you are reading this article, you have probably blinked your eyes hundreds of times. Have you ever wondered why we blink? Dr. Brand discovered that leprous people go blind, because they don’t blink. Blinking functions like our car’s windshield wipers, washing away the impurities. It is pain that causes us to blink.
Try not blinking for the next 60 seconds, if you need proof of this. Because leprous people feel no pain, they don’t blink. The absence of pain actually makes them go blind. Dr. Brand solved their blinking problem surgically by attaching the chewing muscle to their eyelid. Every time they chew gum, their eyelid blinks. As we lovingly look at the faces of our children, how many of us as parents have ever thanked God for the ability to feel pain in our eyes?
One of the greatest mysteries that Dr. Brand faced was why leprous people kept losing their fingers and toes overnight. He knew that they didn’t just shrivel up and fall off. but no one could ever find what happened to the lost fingers and toes. Finally Dr. Brand decided to have people stay awake all night watching the leprosy patients sleep. To their surprise, they discovered that rats were coming in and nibbling off their fingers. Because the patients felt no pain, they never woke up and brushed away the rats.
To save their extremities, leprosy patients are now required to take cats with them, wherever they plan to sleep. I encourage you as you are reading this article to look down at your 10 fingers. How many of us as parents have ever thanked God for our hands that reach out to touch our children, and for the gift of pain that keeps them healthy?
Over 2,000 years ago, a Jewish peasant loved us so much that he allowed people to drive spikes into his hands. I thank God that Jesus chose to bear our pain that he might give us the gift of life.
The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird, BSW, MDiv, DMin
-author of the award-winning book Battle for the Soul of Canada
-previously published in the Deep Cove Crier
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