Dr. Paul Brand revealed the gift of pain in his lifelong work with people who suffer from Hansen’s disease. We know this disease by another name – leprosy.
While the word “leprosy” conjures images in our minds, of stubby fingers, ulcerated wounds, missing legs, and distorted facial features, in actuality, leprosy is not the direct reason for those visible effects.
Hansen’s disease slowly destroys its victims simply because they do not feel pain; they have a defective pain system. The disease primarily acts as an anesthetic which numbs the pain cells of hands, feet, nose, ears, and eyes. While most diseases are feared because of their pain, Hansen’s disease is deadly because its victims feel no pain. The destruction of fingers, eyes, feet, and other limbs follows simply because the warning system of pain is gone.
For instance, in villages in Africa and Asia, where Dr. Brand has worked, a leper will reach directly into a fire to retrieve a dropped potato. Nothing in his body told him not to. Patients at Dr. Brand’s hospital in India would work all day gripping a shovel with a protruding nail, or they would extinguish a burning wick with their bare hands or walk on splintered glass.
Patients can slowly go blind, only because their eyes never felt the discomfort that causes the rest of us to blink. A patient will turn an ankle, tearing tendon and muscle, but simply adjust and walk with a crooked leg, until the rest of his leg is ruined and infected.
No wonder Dr. Brand once said, “Thank God for inventing pain.”
Philip Yancey, Where Is God When It Hurts (Harper Paperbacks, 1990), pp. 14, 23, 24.