“You have neuropathy,” I said.
She furrowed her brow. “What does that mean?”
“It means that your nerves are sick or diseased,” I said. “That’s why you have numbness and tingling in your feet. You don’t feel your skin normally because your nerves aren’t healthy.”
“What can I do about it?” she asked.
“Well, we don’t have any way to make your nerves grow back,” I said. “We have pretty good tools to quiet down nerve pain, but you aren’t really in a lot of pain.”
“No,” she said.
“This is a complication of your diabetes,” I said. “That’s the most common cause of neuropathy in the developed world. So, you need to control your blood sugars. Limit your carbohydrate intake. Exercise regularly. Hopefully the neuropathy won’t get much worse.”
Her eyebrows shot up. “That’s it? There’s nothing else I can do?”
I often get this reaction from patients. They expect some magic pill to make them all better, but a lifestyle change is apparently some kind of non-answer. “Yeah, yeah,” she seemed to be saying. “I know I’m supposed to be doing all of that. But what’s really going to help this neuropathy?”
I smiled and said, “Go dip in the Jordan seven times.”
Naaman the Syrian came to Elisha the prophet with a medical problem. He was captain of the Syrian army, a man of power, wealth, and influence. But leprosy doesn’t care about any of that.
Mycobacterium leprae, the bacterium which causes leprosy, directly invades peripheral nerves. This is probably the most common cause of neuropathy in the underdeveloped world. It also infects skin cells and the upper respiratory tract, and is passed from person to person through respiratory secretions (coughing, sneezing).
Antibiotics have made leper colonies obsolete. The dreaded disease, cause of heartache, separation, and shattered dreams for untold millions of families over millenia, now readily responds to combination therapy with dapsone, rifampin, and clofazamine.
But Naaman lived thousands of years before effective treatments for his condition were known. He probably knew what to expect from leprosy: gradual progression of numbness, skin lesions, deformity, being an outcast from society, suffering a slow and miserable death. It’s an outcome that a powerful and capable person would have a hard time accepting.
After hearing that an Israelite prophet could cure him of his leprosy, Namaan brought his whole entourage to the door of Elisha’s home. But the prophet himself did not go out to meet the man.
“10 And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean.
“11 But Naaman was wroth, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper.
“12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage.
“13 And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?
“14 Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:10-14).
There is nothing really therapeutic about Jordan River water. If it actually cured leprosy then we would have more than just a single case report. Naaman’s healing was a miracle brought forth by the faith of the healer and the obedience of the healed.
Sometimes we crave a hero’s journey when all we really need is to do something simple, even mundane. By telling my patient to go dip in the Jordan I meant that she should stop complaining about the answer she received, and just follow the advice that would help her. I think she understood me, and we had a good discussion about the benefits of lifestyle change in managing diabetes.
I always hope that my patients will eat right and exercise, because doing these things will help a myriad of health problems. Almost everyone has the capacity for some kind of physical activity or some improvement in their diet.
But working out once or eating one balanced meal is not the hard part. Simple things can be challenging to do consistently. Prophetic teachings are like that too:
“Now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances doth confound the wise” (Alma 37:6).
How many times have we been told to read the scriptures and to pray daily? These are easy things which are easily neglected. But for God’s word to impact your life, you have to hit the books — that is, the scriptures — and hit the floor — with your knees. There is not a shortcut or substitute for these things.
And so Naaman was healed when he swallowed his pride. The logic of his servants still rings true today: “If the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?”
Do the small and simple things, the easy things, the essential things. Then watch as the great things come to pass.
Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist. Cover illustration by Marisa Sanderson.