I never wanted to be a doctor. I don’t get squeamish, but I’m still not excited about blood. Yet for a few hours, I played surgeon.
The Dominican Brothers of St. Martin de Porres serve leprosy patients in the town of Tala in the Philippines, where I spent my recent social justice summer. One task I was asked to do was clean patients’ ulcers and remove callouses from their feet.
First I remove old bandages. Underneath are open wounds, callouses and ulcers, constantly aggravated by walking. The patient places his feet in a bucket of water, and I wash his feet, wiping off the dirt and hopefully cleansing the wound. Next the patient places his foot on a stool. I put on plastic gloves, grab a surgical scissors, and proceed to remove the dead skin and callous around his ulcer. There are bodily fluids involved, but I won’t get graphic.
His feet are dirty and discolored with spots of leprosy. Some of his toes were amputated, others permanently bent in half. On the sole of his foot is a nickel-sized wound. Around the wound is hard, white skin. Dead and calloused. Walking is painful, so he regularly needs his wound cleaned and the callous removed. The wound will never heal. Even when leprosy is healed, the ulcers, deformations, and amputations remain.
I have a number of fears. First, this man is a leper. If I touch him, will I contract leprosy? I’ve been assured the disease is no longer contagious. But the fear is there. How did Jesus do it? The disease is horrible, painful, causing horrific disfigurement. I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely comfortable touching a leper. And the foot barely looks like a foot. Plus there’s an open wound to cleanse, then cut into. There will be bodily fluids. Never did I imagine myself in such a situation.
But it’s not just a wound, a foot, a leper. This is a man. A human being. He has family, friends, a home, hobbies. I want to let the man know I recognize him as a person. I am disgusted by his foot and wound, but I don’t want him to feel like he himself disgusts me. He is a human being, and as such deserves dignity.
I remember Jesus’ encounter with the Gerasene Demoniac in Mark 5. An unclean spirit possesses a man. He’s naked, frequently screaming and harming himself physically. We can imagine a similar homeless man with a mental disability today. People are scared of him and so never approach. Jesus does approach him and asks a simple question: “What is your name?” Nobody else cares what this man’s name is; to them, he is little more than a wild dog. Wild dogs don’t have names. But Jesus recognizes the man as a man, not simply an animal. A man has a name. By asking his name, Jesus recognizes the man’s dignity.
I think of this scene and ask the patient his name. Eduardo. He is not just a leprosy patient with a terrible open wound on his foot. He is Eduardo. How many people avoid him out of fear of his disease? How often has he felt and been treated as less than human? He is as much a man as I am and deserves just as much dignity. He’s not a leper; he’s Eduardo.
I also think about Veronica wiping Christ’s face in the midst of his Passion. I realize her action is not simply a nice gesture, like offering someone a Kleenex. Jesus was covered in dirt, sweat and blood with open wounds. He looked broken, disgusting. No one wants to approach a man covered in blood, let alone touch his face. Yet that’s what Veronica did. She did not see a creature covered in blood; she saw a man, her friend Jesus. A man stripped of dignity, a man abandoned. Eduardo is an abandoned man whom we’re all afraid to touch, as Jesus was. I wipe and bandage Eduardo’s feet, as Veronica wiped Jesus’ face.
I never expected to experience stories from Christ’s life in such a real way. Not just to know those stories, but to actually live and feel those stories. I was so uncomfortable in that situation, but this man is so ignored and despised by society. He’s treated like a dog thrown aside, not a man. How could I not help him? How could I not recognize him, treat him with dignity, treat him as a brother and a friend? It sounds like a good thing to do, but it’s so hard in real life to look past the horrific, disfiguring disease, to get over the fears and unease, and see instead a man. A child of God. Christ himself.