In The Home of Simon the Leper
During February to April of 2017, I helped out at Jesu Ashram: a hospital for the destitute in Matigara, Darjeeling. The hospital has three wards: leprosy, tuberculosis, and general. It is also a free training center for nurses, most of whom are tribal women. I worked in the leprosy ward, helping to dress patients’ wounds, and I taught English as a language to the first year nurses. I also visited patients and helped to paint the property.
The old stigma of leprosy, which one reads about in scripture, is still alive and well. It thrives in rural India, where there are high illiteracy rates and ignorance about the disease. Patients rarely divulge its early stages to family, or even doctors. If others find out, they will want nothing to do with them or their families. They will be avoided and even spurned. Some lepers are even abandoned by their families.
While visiting a thirty-five year old man whom I had befriended, he lamented: ‘what future do I have? No one will employ me…even if I am cured, what woman will want to marry a leper?’ To avoid such hopelessness, families and patients collude to hide leprotic wounds till those wounds refuse all concealment. Dominique Lapierre’s, The City of Joy, gives moving accounts of the plight of Indian lepers.
Leprosy first appears as milky patches on the skin that are the result of dead nerves. It is most treatable at this stage. The patches usually occur where veins are most exposed: hands, feet and face. The disease makes hands rigidly crooked, which is bad news especially for those who make their living with them: laborers and artisans. Patches turn into wounds as the bacteria eat through the flesh.
Leprosy is positive before treatment. It is negative after. Positive patients try to hide their wounds. Often, they do not stick to the course of medications, and the disease returns more resilient. Then, more potent and more expensive medications have to be administered. I have met untreatable lepers. Negative patients neglect their wounds. Even after treatment, wounds require constant care. They have to be cleaned and bandaged daily. If not, debris gets into them. Since feeling does not return to the affected areas, patients frequently do not realize that they are being burned, or cut by a sharp object. Their wounds become infected, and they lose limbs.
Thanks to the work of Jesu Ashram, the number of destitute lepers has reduced drastically. Although there is a cure for leprosy, it proves more challenging to treat hopelessness, insensitivity and stigma, which are leprosies of the soul. Patients find it difficult to accept their fate. A few seem to have learned acceptance. The Ashram’s ministry is not only to treat lepers physically, but also spiritually. Patients have tasks: they see to security: they transfer food vessels to and from their wards. If they are able, they work on maintenance. My patient-friend helps with transporting food, and with maintenance. The hopelessness has since left his eyes. The last time I saw him, he was smiling.
Source for photos: Jason Vaz, SJ