Monday, June 4, 2012

Triumph at Carville: Leprosy in America (2005)

This was an interesting little documentary.  So many people dump on the South, but apparently the South played a critical role in helping to cure Hanson’s disease (which is more commonly known as leprosy). 

The name “Carville” was given to a former plantation in rural Louisiana that in the late 1800s was converted into a hospital and an institutional home for people with Hanson’s disease.  It still exists today, but because modern medicine has advanced so much, people with the disease now have little disruption to their lives.  Newly diagnosed people live in their own homes and are not institutionalized. The patients who still live at Carville are older and have lived most of their lives there.  Most of the facility has now been turned over to other uses.

Because of fears that the disease could be passed on to others, people who used to get sent to Carville were essentially treated like inmates.  They were patients in the sense that they were given medical care.  But they were confined to the facility and not typically allowed to leave. 

Most heartbreakingly, this led to the separation of families.  For that reason, I think the documentary fits well in the theme of recent posts to this blog.

Spouses were not allowed to join their Hanson’s diagnosed partners at Carville.  Diagnosed children were sent to Carville without their parents.  I cannot imagine the terror of the children being ripped from their families and sent to a place of strangers, many of whom were frighteningly disfigured from their disease. 

Patients at Carville were discouraged from dating or marrying.  But still love blossomed and families formed.  Several of the women describe the anguish of having children while at Carville.  As healthy children were not permitted at Carville, infants born to patients were sent to orphanages or to families to be raised outside of the institution. 

In the documentary, two grown children of Carville patients described occasional visits to see their birth parents.  It broke my heart to imagine what that must be like to lose custody and any rights to raise one’s own children.  It broke my heart to imagine what it must have been like to be raised without parents like that.

Despite these anguishing aspects of Carville, there were some bright sides.  There was apparently a real sense of community.  Everyone worked—there was a dairy, school, gardens, etc.  And people did things to celebrate life.  Christmas pageants, Mardi Gras celebrations, a newspaper, a baseball team, fishing.

One man spoke about a couple at Carville who were like surrogate parents to him when he was sent to Carville. His Carville “mother” adored him and couldn’t believe he ever did wrong.  He was closed to her even in their advanced age.  Others who were sent to Carville as children spoke about the nuns who cared for them, embraced them and made them feel special.

Indeed, the nuns at Carville were a really fascinating aspect of the film.  The Sisters of Charity were the primary caregivers when Carville first opened.  It was noted how brave this was of them.  Leprosy was so feared and had such a stigma in those days.  It was thought the nuns were risking their lives, physical suffering and disfigurement to go to Carville to minister to the patients.  But that was their vocation.  Someone had to do it and they wanted to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the most shunned people in society.  What a powerful witness to God’s love!

It was noted in the film that in those days, bright ambitious young girls and women became nuns.  That was the one vocation for women where they could try different professions, go places and have responsibility beyond their own families.  It was noted that the Sisters of Charity at Carville filled a number of key roles.  They taught.  They nursed.  They worked in the lab to find a cure for Hanson’s disease.  They ministered to the spiritual needs of the patients.  They mothered the children.

Mark 14:3

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

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