This book is about pain and its value. It is written as a memoir of Dr Paul Brand, whose professional life revolved around the theme of pain. As a child in India he observed pain and suffering as he watched his missionary parents treating those who came for help. His parents were not doctors but had a little medical training that enabled them to treat ailments and, when necessary, extract teeth. Some of the treatments Paul Brand watched were messy and revolting and made him decide that the last thing he wanted to do was to become a doctor.
The book tells why Paul Brand changed his mind and became a doctor, also his experience of training in London during WWII with nights spent treating bombing casualties and fire-watching, days spent studying. As well as acquiring knowledge and surgical skills he “learned that medicine does not merely consist in taking care of body parts. Treating a disease and treating a person are very different concerns, because recovery depends in large part on the mind and spirit of the patient. Suffering, a state of mind, involves the whole patient.”
Dr Brand worked in India and later in the USA. He worked with patients suffering from Hansen’s disease (aka leprosy) and pioneered reconstructive surgery to correct deformities due to that disease. He was the one who showed that these deformities were not caused by the disease itself but by patients unintentionally injuring themselves because of their insensitivity to pain. He came to regard pain as a valuable warning system and believed that we should listen to our pain and manage it rather than try to silence it. Terrible damage can be done to the bodies of athletes who silence pain with strong painkillers or addicts who silence it with alcohol and drugs. The last five chapters of the book deal with learning how to manage pain.
Philip Yancey, the co-author, is a writer and he came across Brand’s name while doing research for a book on pain: Where is God when it hurts? He requested an interview and that meeting led to a deep friendship. Yancey’s father died when Yancey was one year old and Brand became a father figure for him. Yancey has spent his life in recovery from growing up in a cultish, racist church. Brand helped him deal with the doubts and questions he had, providing a positive role model of Christian faith to counteract some of the negative models he had in his youth.
This may not be the best book to read if you are ultra-squeamish — some terrible things happen to those who can’t feel pain — but I would recommend it for anyone else. We all have to deal with pain at some time in our lives, either our own pain or that of others, so it’s a topic that affects us all.
The Gift of Pain: Why we hurt and what we can do about it by Dr Paul Brand and Philip Yancey was first published in 1993 under the title Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants.