A patient from Green Gardens Hospital (photo: Beth Dotson)
Sister Berchman in her apostolate of care (photo: Beth Dotson)
Victims of leprosy at Green Gardens (photo: Beth Dotson)
The bright Indian sun could not lift my spirits as we traveled along the road to Shertallay in the southern state of Kerala. We were going to visit Green Gardens Leprosy Hospital, founded in 1942 and supported in part by Catholic Near East. I was afraid, afraid of what the victims of this disease would look like, afraid of how I would react to them.
The fear is typical, especially in India. Fifteen million people in the world are estimated to have leprosy, also called Hansens disease. One third of these victims live in India.
When we arrived at the hospital, I stepped out of the car and onto the barren brown soil that surrounded the whitewashed buildings. Sr. Berchmans smile eased my apprehension. The Indian nun in the white habit exuded the kind of warmth that envelopes everyone like a loving embrace.
That kind of warmth is alien to most victims of leprosy who, like AIDS victims in the United States, are shunned by people who know little about the disease and fear contamination. Many people see leprosy as a curse, not a disease. The shameful label of leper drives its victims into being isolated, alienated, and ostracized.
As we strolled the grounds, I could see that the sisters cushion those feelings with patience and love. They open their arms and hearts to give comfort and understanding to those society has rejected. Because of this work, the sisters face parental objection and possible danger to their health.
Despite these obstacles, the Assisi Sisters at Green Gardens dedicate their lives to working with the 160 patients at the hospital. Besides treating the resident patients, they also run an outpatient clinic and a leprosy control program. Through this program, the sisters go into schools and villages to test for early signs of the disease and speak about the importance of early detection and regular treatment. When diagnosed patients do not show up for treatment at their clinics, the sisters visit them to patiently coax them out of their shame and into the medical treatment that can arrest the disease.
Leprosy is most prevalent in tropical or subtropical countries. Although it is contagious, leprosy has been almost eradicated in the United States and Europe. This is a result of improved economic and social conditions thereby prompting better nutrition, housing, and hygiene practices. However, in India most of those stricken with leprosy are the poor.
As we met the patients, I noticed some of them had very few physical signs of the disease. Sister Berchman explained this was because they had been treated during its early stages. Other patients suffered from deformities of the eyes, ears, hands, and feet. Left untreated, the leprae bacteria destroy nerves, causing patches on the skin, lesions, loss of feeling and deformities. The lack of feeling in affected limbs compounds the problem when leprosy victims unknowingly damage themselves, often causing skin ulcers.
One of the English-speaking patients that I met was a woman in her early thirties named Felcita. The leprosy had advanced enough to disfigure her face. Her swollen legs exhibited signs of elephantiasis (a common disease in southern India spread by carrier mosquitos) and she had experienced an adverse reaction to her medicine.
It was obvious upon our meeting that Felcita was not a typical victim of leprosy. As I spoke with her, I discovered she had educational advantages that are denied to most Indian women.
In 1974, 21 year old Felcita was teaching in southern India. She noticed white patches on her arms and went to the doctor. He prescribed a treatment, but her condition grew worse. For ten years, the treatment continued without positive results and she then became very ill. Her misdiagnosis was followed for two more years. Finally, at the age 33, Felcita was diagnosed as a victim of leprosy.
Victims of leprosy are cut off from the economic system. At Green Gardens, the sisters give patients who are physically able the opportunity to work. They are trained in weaving, tailoring, carpentry, poultry-raising, farming and rope making. Small grants have even been given to some patients to start their own businesses.
After our visit, Sister Berchman elaborated on the nature of the disease. Leprosys transmission is unclear, but approximately 95% of the world population today is immune to the disease. Despite improved treatment and education, Indias 4 million victims will only be reduced to 2 million 50 years from now. Though there may be no live leprae bacteria in a person, thus termed negative, there is no permanent cure.
Although people who have lived in close contact with victims of leprosy have not invariably become infected, it is a risk for the sisters. They clean open wounds where the contagious bacteria live. They also put themselves at risk to elephantiasis anyone who lives in the area for an extended period of time can contract the disease.
As we spoke, their courage came to light in other ways. One young sister, who studied in Europe, said her parents opposed her joining the order. Traditionally protective Indian parents are wary of sending their daughters off to the convent where they have no control over them. They also fear that their child (many women are teenagers when they join the convent) may change her mind in a few years and then be a victim of societys ridicule. At that time, there would be no hope of finding the daughter a suitable husband. Yet, in a country that is only 2% Christian, these educated women have chosen to work with a feared and alienated sector of society.
The societal attitudes that jail these victims of leprosy create a deeply rooted feeling of rejection.
The Assisi Sisters apostolate of care is not reserved for just the physical wounds of these children of God. But more importantly, their apostolate is one of love healing the pain and the shame inflicted by centuries-old fear.
Beth Dotson is a staff writer for Catholic Relief Services based in Baltimore, Maryland.