By Dr. Daniel Johnson
I love to read. Anything related to medical science and missionary stories top the list. But when I get a book which is both, that’s like hitting the jackpot!
One of the gripping stories in such a book I read is about a boy who opened a door no one else could. One day, while walking the corridors of the hospital where he was working, a doctor noticed a number of people gathering around. Curious to know what was happening, he also stopped by. He realised that several people were trying to open a door with an old rusted key—but no one could.
Just then a small boy of maybe 10 or 11 years old came and asked if he could be of any help. Amidst the curious looks of the people standing there, he proceeds to unlock the door! Handing the key back, the boy calmly walks away, now amidst astonished onlookers.
As he handed back the key, they noticed a few drops of blood on it. At first the doctor was puzzled. But then it hit him—the boy was a leper! This boy, being a leper, didn’t have enough sensation in his fingers to tell his body that it was hurting. So he kept on turning the key of the door, and even when his hand got cut and bled, he still didn’t stop. He finally opened the door, but he also injured his hands in the process—although he didn’t “feel” it.
Pain is a gift, the doctor concluded.
The True Face of Leprosy
Leprosy is an ancient disease; but it’s also a very peculiar disease. The organism causing it (the bacteria that causes the sickness is a “cousin” of the one that causes tuberculosis) selectively affects the sensation in the peripheral extremities, or colder parts, of the body, such as fingers, toes, ears and nose. Often those affected with this sickness lose parts of their bodies to infection (often caused by lack of sensation) and become disfigured. But the disfigurement is the least of the problems they face.
In my country, if you contract this disease, it’s believed you are cursed. It’s believed you bring bad luck, and therefore, you will bring the curse or bad luck on “normal” people by being around them. So what happens to those with leprosy? They are “asked” to leave. But that’s putting it nicely. In actuality, they are forced to leave. Forced to leave their family, their village, all that they thought was theirs. Who would want to be around someone who’s cursed? Their only option now is to be with others who are “cursed” as well.
I remember an interesting story I heard while visiting our hospital in Purulia, West Bengal, a north-eastern state of India. We use this facility to minister to the many leprosy–affected people in and around that area. Once, two brothers, hearing that we were looking for land to build a medical facility, approached our church leaders and said they would give a piece of land for free if we were going to use it to help leprosy patients. They then went on to explain, why they were making such an offer.
The land they wanted to donate actually had a small house, which their father used to live in for years. Their story went like this:
They were a happy family with a good business and plenty of money. But, unfortunately, their father got the dreaded sickness of leprosy. Even though their father was a well–known rich man and had a lot of business, he had to leave his family and village. So his sons bought their father a small piece of land far away from their own place and built him a house there to live.
They used to visit him once in a while; but their father died in that house, alone and far away from his very own family.
This is the plight of someone with leprosy. Rich or poor; their fate is the same.
Can you imagine yourself in that situation? A father, being asked to leave his own house and his own family, all because of a sickness he caught? Having a family, children, wife and wealth, yet now looked up as a “cursed” one? No wonder, then, most people with leprosy turn to begging on the streets to earn a living.
Out of “Sight”
One of our eye surgeons, while on a medical mission trip to the northern part of India, came across another interesting situation. This doctor’s modus operandi was to conduct camps in villages, examine the vision of patients who came, and then take those who were eligible for cataract surgeries to the hospital nearby and do the surgery—all for free.
In those basic conditions, he used to operate on up to 80 patients in those few days he spent there. However, one day he received a strange request: Could he also conduct eye camps in the leprosy colony nearby?
You see, those affected with leprosy seem to congregate together in one place, and they were referring to one such colony. He was only happy to do so. He did all the initial screening tests and even gave them dates to come to the hospital. However, there was a problem. He had to do the surgeries at night! And this doctor knew exactly why!
Many, many years ago, while a medical student at Christian Medical College, Vellore, South India (which was started by Dr. Ida Scudder, the granddaughter of the first American medical missionary), he had the privilege to actually work alongside the legendary leprosy surgeon, Dr. Paul Brand, and his wife, and he knew the fact that these leprosy patients would not be welcomed inside the hospitals during normal working hours. So they used to come at odd hours, when “normal” people were not around. If they attended to the patients during the day, then “normal” people would stop coming to the hospital! So to do their eye surgeries, the leprosy patients came at night. After the surgery, they would be given post–operative care and would be sent home before day break.
Think about it for a moment. Being completely normal on the inside, while being looked upon as one who brings bad luck on others? You are not known by your name or where you work or where you belong to. You are known only as a leper; an outcast—the ostracized, the unwanted. You are not welcome.
About two months ago, I saw a different sight—one where leprosy patients were welcomed and referred to not by their disease but as friends. The ministry among these patients is called, “Reaching Friends Ministry” in an effort to not make the disease a barrier, but to instead receive these people as friends.
I, along with my 5–year–old daughter, visited a leprosy colony close by our Purulia hospital, where our Sisters of Compassion stay and help these friends.
That morning, these friends of ours, mostly older folks, came for the morning prayer. We sang songs, listened to God’s Word being read and prayed with them. At the end, we helped distribute a bun (sort of bread locally available) and a piece of cake—that was their breakfast for the day.
As my daughter gave them their buns, the older ladies in their colorful sarees would take her hand in theirs. They would touch her lovingly and fold their hands (or what remained of their hands) to say thanks. Their disfigured faces could not hold back their bright smiles. It was a heart–touching scene. One older lady came and told me, referring to the Sisters of Compassion, “It’s because of these daughters that I live.”
Our sisters do this every day. But the help goes beyond just food. These sisters and medical workers visit the houses where the leprosy patients stay, and they dress their wounds (most are non–healing ulcers). Everyday afternoon, the older friends, who are too weak to work, receive one nutritious meal a day. We also make them special, rubberised footwear (after taking measurements to make sure it’s an exact fit) so their feet, which have lost sensation, do not get injured and infected. In many places, our sisters cook for them, wash their clothes and even clean their house or the place where they stay.
Our work has now expanded to more than 40 colonies across Asia. We are now ministering to more friends. What an opportunity we have to serve these people—the ones who are unwelcome, out of sight and thought to be cursed! We have a chance to welcome them, bring them to the light and bless them, all because of the love of Christ.
Would you please, for a moment, consider the opportunity the Lord has given us? Would you take some time to pray for those who are working among them: the Sisters of Compassion, our medical workers and our pastors? Would you consider standing alongside the ministry and aiding with financial resources to help minister to more of our leper friends?
Remember what Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, niv).
Dr. Daniel Johnson was born in India, into a godly Christian family. He completed his medical studies at Trivandrum Medical College before following the call of God and dedicating his life to full-time service. He is currently the coordinator of GFA-supported medical missions on the field and leads its many initiatives to improve the health of the poor and downtrodden. He’s taken the lead in creating DVDs and booklets on health and hygiene at the village level, some of which have been translated into more than 14 languages.
Comment below with your prayer for those working among leprosy patients or how you’re planning to get involved.
Click here, to read more articles on Patheos by Dr. KP Yohannan Metropolitan.