Lesson of Love in South India

An eyewitness account of the courage of those who serve victims of leprosy and the dignity of those suffering from this disease.

text and photos by Beth Dotson

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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 Hansen’s 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. Berchman’s 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.

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