A Lesson Learned From Washing Lepers in Burma
“When you give to the poor, it is like lending to the Lord, and the Lord will pay you back.” (Proverbs 19:17)
I’ve often written in the past about my experiences in Burma and have received many questions over the years from people who want to be lay missionaries in far-off lands. As for my part, I eagerly tell them the truth.
It was mostly hot, humid, annoying, uncomfortable and infested with scorpions and Burmese pythons. And, of course, there were all the health scares and the time a tiger got much too close to our village. And the rabies treatment I needed. And the time the soldiers stopped me on the highway threatening to throw me out of the country or shoot me and then shaking me down for a bribe. The two times I was scammed by professional con artists who said they needed money for emergency surgery for their respective fathers. The three toenails I lost after having heavy boxes fall on my bare feet ― no one wears shoes in Burma. And, of course, the time I was served spicy bat curry for lunch. (I joke a lot but the bat was delicious. If you have the means, I highly recommend it.)
Other than the bat, the food was unhealthy. The water, poisonous. Three wars are currently going on Burma at this writing and thus my movements were somewhat curtailed. There are flare-ups of bubonic plague (i.e., the Black Death) from time to time along with the nearly constant waves of flu epidemics and Japanese encephalitis break-outs. Everything is spicy here, including the toilet paper ― when you can find it. If there is a little bit of political or economic power in even the most innocuous and innocent of ways, there is a long line of unscrupulous locals who will do anything to wield that power against everyone around them for personal gain.
There is great despair in this country that threatens to overwhelm everyone. But, despite these minor inconveniences, it was the greatest experience of my life and I would easily do it again and again. In fact, I’ve done little else with my free time over the past few years other than sojourn in Burma when I can. And, anytime my performance schedule brings me to the other side of the planet, I try to drop by with chocolate, pencils and penicillin for the kids. After all, as St. Ambrose of Milan reminds us, The rich man who gives to the poor does not bestow alms but pays a debt.
Most of the people I cared for weren’t technically lepers but they were often regarded as such by the locals. But there were also 11 kids and youth with ichthyosis vulgaris ― a devastating leprosy-like skin disease.
A tiny number of Americans are born with this disorder but it generally causes no problems for those born in developed nations whose populations have easy access to soap and clean water. The problems occur when hygiene is secondary to maintaining one’s basic existence.
I took “jungle” medical training to deal with ichthyosis in Rangoon and set out to show the good and gentle townsfolk what I had learned ― it’s simply a matter of soaking in warm, salted water and scrubbing the dead skin off.
We had to buy 50-gallon plastic barrels for each kid to soak in. Surprisingly, sea salt was cheap and plentiful even there in the Burmese Hinterlands.
I decided to try the treatment on 12-year-old Than Than Naing, as his case was the worst in the village. His eyelids were pulled so tightly that he hadn’t been able to close his eyes for the previous two years even when he slept. The corners of his mouth were pulled taut in a permanent rictus, which gave the impression that Than was always smiling. In reality, he simply couldn’t close his lips.
When I told Than’s family of my plan, his mother was grateful for my efforts but didn’t look convinced. The father was polite but he had given up hope long ago. I begged them to trust me for 30 minutes to help their boy.
When I had gotten the clinic’s treatment room prepared, I gather together anyone who would bother listening to me. In the presence of the parish priest, two Sisters of St. Joseph, both of the boy’s parents and his older sister, I hooked up the solar generator to the water heater, filled the plastic barrel and dissolved about 2 pounds of sea salt in the warm water. The father picked up his son and gently placed him in the barrel and then we all waited.
“This is useless,” Than’s father said, shaking his head. “This won’t help. We tried everything already.”
The timer on my phone went off. Thirty minutes were up. I sidled up to the barrel with a confidence that I did not feel and sat on a low stool next to it. I took the kid’s arm and draped it over the side of the barrel. His dead, scaly skin had become bloated with water and had taken on a whiteish, almost ghostly hue. I looked up at the parents. The mother was full of reserved hope. The father was stoic. I looked at the boy in his red, unblinking eyes and, forcing down my own fears and following my training, I pinched one of the larger scales on his arm to reveal normal, healthy skin underneath it. A collective gasp resounded in the walls of the tiny wooden clinic. The boy looked up at me with his unblinking eyes and a look of amazement came over him. I didn’t do much more after that — all of the adults in the room descended upon poor Than and helped clean away the dead skin. The mother cried joyfully. The elder sister was in grateful shock. The father was tight-jawed, fighting back very unmanly tears. One of the St. Joseph sisters crossed herself. The priest silently looked at me in wonder. I barely had the energy and wherewithal to simply breathe but I found the courage to do so.
Ten minutes later, Than emerged from the tub/barrel smiling and blinking for the first time in two years, but he remained silent. His lifelong condition had made him unnaturally shy and he was used to the silence. I handed him a mirror and he looked at himself for a long time. The dead skin was gone. He was handsome again. He looked at me and smiled. I closed my eyes and smiled back.
I stepped out of the clinic to allow the family to dress the boy. I stood there letting the cool mountain air clear my mind and dry my tears. It would be unbecoming for the others to see that I too was overwhelmed. I thanked God for yet another of his unceasing miracles. Just then, the unthinkable happened ― as God would have it, something for which I had not prepared myself ― the veritable flood of gratitude. The emotional onslaught is something I wouldn’t have wished upon my worst enemy. Each lungdam mahmah ei (“Thank you,”) made my stomach tighten and my breathing shallower.
The Prophet Daniel (4:24) reminds us, Atone for your sins by good deeds, and for your misdeeds by kindness to the poor; then your prosperity will be long. Proverbs 19:17 backs up Daniel: When you give to the poor, it is like lending to the Lord, and the Lord will pay you back.