Damien Leprosy Institute: Home for the Rejected

text and photos by Cheryl Sheridan

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“My brother’s son cannot find a wife,” laments Rosa. The 60-year-old woman looks at her hands and feet, which have been eaten away by leprosy, the source of her emotional and physical pain. Although Rosa’s family has rejected her, her personal dignity has been restored.

For more than 27 years, Rosa has been a resident at Damien Leprosy Institute, a hospital for people with Hansen’s disease in India’s southwestern state of Kerala. The program is supported by the Syro-Malabar Diocese of Trichur with funds provided in part by CNEWA.

Rosa begins her day in the fields supervising the women who come from neighboring villages to work. In the afternoon she works in the hand-loom shop weaving cloth used by Damien and other institutions supported by the diocese.

Damien Institute, which was founded in 1953, is named after Damien de Veuster, the Belgian priest who, in 1873 at the age of 33, went to the Hawaiian island of Molokai to care for the people with Hansen’s disease who had been banished there. Eventually he contracted the disease (named for the Norwegian scientist who discovered the virus in 1873) and died at 49, a martyr-model.

The institute, which is situated in the hills 10 kilometers from Trichur, is staffed by a local religious community: the Sisters of Nirmala Dasi (the Servants of God). Its 185 acres are planted with rubber, coconut and banana trees: rice grows in the low-lying areas. Vegetables grown in a garden within the compound, tended by rehabilitated patients, supplement the residents’ diet.

There are other projects at Damien that help push it toward greater self-sufficiency.

A few older women tend families of goats with great dedication. In the afternoon it is not uncommon to see a woman chasing her goats home from the grazing areas while wielding a stick to keep them out of nearby gardens.

One young woman, Deepa, is just 19 and has virtually grown up at Damien. “I remember Deepa’s mother carrying her on her hip,” recalls Sister Elsy, who has been at the institute for 13 years. Now, working at the sewing shop, Deepa has a sense of purpose by contributing to the community.

Although Deepa is not in the advanced stage of the disease she gets sores on her feet.

“Instead of coming and going to and from Damien, I just stay here,” she says, adding that her family visits her. Two of Deepa’s brothers also have Hansen’s but the elder brother and sister are healthy.

As fortunate as Deepa and the other 145 patients are at Damien, the sisters and the institute’s director, Father John Moolan, would like to see the day when they are out of business. It is a goal of the Indian government to eradicate Hansen’s disease by the year 2000. Damien Institute has made great strides in that direction, but new cases continue to appear.

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