There is a list of people long since gone that I would love to sit down with over a cup of coffee and pick their brain. I envision sitting for several hours (with an additional cup of coffee or three) captivated by stories of success and failure, joy and sadness, trial and error, despair and hope, dreams come true and dreams altered by circumstances out of their control. I would ask of their dreams for the future, what they would have changed given the chance, what advice they would give to people such as myself, and how they managed to align their priorities. What made them tick? The list includes people like John Wooden - legendary basketball coach, author, and teacher. Martin Luther King, Jr.- preacher, activist, and advocate of justice. Mother Theresa - servant to the poorest of the poor and saint. The list could go on and on.
Paul Brand is on the short version of that list. One of the most difficult decisions medical students have to make while going through their training is what field to pursue. For some this decision is based on length of training. For others it is based on the financial reward of a specific field. For others it is a calling of sorts and simply the 'right fit.' When I became interested in orthopedics, one of the major obstacles was the ability to use orthopedics overseas in mission settings. Orthopedics in the United States is heavily dependent on technology and sophisticated instrumentation that is simply too expensive and not available among the world's poor. During this decision process, I was given a book by a friend called Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, a book written by Dr Paul Brand sharing his insights into a life of mission work as an surgeon, specifically hand surgery. It was that book that pushed me toward what I felt God was calling me to do.
Dr Brand took a special interest in lepers. Thankfully leprosy (today called Hansen's Disease) is far less prevalent compared with history. Leprosy is referred to often in the Bible as a disease of the 'unclean,' preventing its victims from participating in society. Lepers could often be disfigured and cast away from their families and friends into a life of isolation and despair. Today, we know that leprosy is caused by a bacteria - Mycobacterium leprae - a bug in the same family as tuberculosis. Leprosy is best known for its disfiguring tendencies of the skin and yet one less known aspect of leprosy is that it attacks the body's peripheral nerves - those nerves in our arms and legs.
Lepers suffer from complete numbness as well as weakness and loss of function. People infected with leprosy lose what Dr Brand called 'The Gift of Pain." Without the presence of sensation, the human body has no way to know if what it is doing is causing self-harm. I remember reading Dr Brand's stories of lepers who would have their toes literally eaten off by rats during the night and not know it because they could not feel their toes. A leper does not know he is developing a blister on the bottom of his foot or holding a glass too tight, both of which can cause ulcerations and eventual necrosis requiring amputation. The Gift of Pain, thought strange to label as a gift, gave the person back the ability to interact with the world safely without further self-inflicted harm. To have no pain was not the utopian life we sometimes ask for but rather left one in a state of helplessness as their life was slowly taken from them. Dr Brand devoted the majority of his career to caring for lepers, refusing to believe they were any less important than any other individual on the planet.
I hope heaven has a coffee shop that I can sit down at with Dr Brand.