I’ve been speaking to various groups about my recently released book with Dr. Paul Brand, Fearfully and Wonderfully: The Marvel of Bearing God’s Image. An orthopedic surgeon by training, Dr. Brand served as a medical missionary in India, where he became a specialist in the disease leprosy. Wherever I go, I find that people have a natural curiosity about that ancient and dreaded disease.
Myths and misconceptions abound. I often hear a comment like “I had no idea leprosy was still around!” In fact, some 200,000 new cases get reported each year, mainly in India, Brazil, Indonesia, and parts of Africa. Even so, leprosy ranks as one of the least contagious of diseases, for 95 percent of people have a natural immunity and wouldn’t contract the disease even if injected with leprosy bacteria.
Once diagnosed, the disease can be treated with a multi-drug therapy provided free by the World Health Organization. Within a year, active bacteria die off and the patient is pronounced “cured”; sixteen million people in the world have achieved that state. Many of them, however, learn that their problems are just beginning.
Dr. Brand and his team in India made the revolutionary discovery that leprosy does its damage by destroying pain cells. As a result, even “cured” patients, who lack the protective sensation of pain, must spend their lives vigilant against danger. They may twist an ankle and, feeling no pain, keep walking, doing permanent damage to muscles and tendons. Many go blind, lacking the gentle pain signals that prompt the lubricating blink reflex 28,000 times per day.
On a book tour in England I met an engineer from South Africa who showed me his scars. “See this?” he said, pulling up his trouser leg to reveal a prosthetic foot. “I poured hot water in a basin to wash my feet. I couldn’t judge the temperature because of my insensitivity, and the water was far too hot. I literally boiled my feet.”
Next, he rolled up his shirt sleeve to show me a large scar near his elbow. “And I got this one when a rat came in the night and gnawed on my arm. I didn’t feel anything, so I didn’t wake up.”
Most of the major advances in the understanding and treatment of leprosy have come from medical missionaries. They were the only ones willing to risk exposure at a time when leprosy victims were made to live outside the village and wear a bell to announce their presence.
“Leprosy is a devastatingly lonely disease,” Dr. Brand told me. “In many countries its victims are kicked out of their homes, rejected by the community, and sometimes forced to live outdoors, by a pile of rocks or in a cave. They lose contact with other humans.”
He told me of one memorable encounter. “I was examining the hands of a bright young man, trying to explain to him in my broken Tamil that we could halt the progress of the disease, and perhaps restore some movement to his hand. I expected him to smile in response, but instead he began to shake with muffled sobs.
“‘Have I said something wrong?’ I asked my assistant in English. ‘Did he misunderstand me?’ She quizzed him in a spurt of Tamil and replied, ‘No, doctor. He says he is crying because you put your hand around his shoulder. Until he came here no one had touched him for many years.’”
Christian history includes episodes that rightly cause shame and embarrassment, but the response to leprosy victims makes a welcome balancing chapter. The tradition of compassion traces all the way back to Jesus, who ignored societal rules against touching those believed to have leprosy. Following his example, centuries later St. Francis of Assisi famously embraced a beggar with leprosy.
In the Middle Ages, as leprosy ravaged Europe, a strange rumor spread that Jesus himself must have suffered from the disease. In the Servant Song of Isaiah (chapters 52-53), the prophet had described a man “disfigured beyond that of any human being…Like one from whom people hide their faces.” In his Latin translation of the Bible, Saint Jerome had used the adjective leprosum to emphasize the disfigurement, and twelfth-century scholars took the word literally, as a prophecy of Jesus’ affliction.
Improbably, leprosy gained a reputation as the Holy Disease, and Christians in Europe sought out sufferers as representatives of Jesus, who had promised that, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25). Defying cultural stigma as well as their own fears, devout Christians looked past the unsightly symptoms of leprosy and began treating its victims as they would treat Jesus.
Orders of nuns devoted to Lazarus (the beggar in Jesus’ parable of Luke 16, who became the patron saint of leprosy) established homes for patients—300 such homes in England and 2,000 in France. These nuns could do little but bind wounds and change dressings, but the homes themselves, called lazarettos, helped break the hold of the disease in Europe, by limiting transmission and improving living conditions. The disease virtually disappeared from the continent.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Christian missionaries spread across the globe to establish hospitals and clinics for leprosy patients. Dr. Brand was supported by The Leprosy Mission, one of a network of Christian missions devoted to the disease. “I’ve sometimes wondered why leprosy merits its own task force,” he told me. “I know of no Malaria Mission or Cholera Mission. Perhaps the reason traces back to the leprosy patients’ starvation for human contact. Theirs is a unique and terrible privation, and Christian love and sensitivity meet it best.”
Whenever a social problem gets my attention today, I think back to the response of the church in the Middle Ages to the disease leprosy. What would happen if the church treated every person with AIDS as they would treat Jesus? Or every homeless person? Or every immigrant? We moderns have something to learn from a period of time often called “The Dark Ages.” In at least one respect, they weren’t so dark after all.
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