In a few days, I’m heading off to Louisiana for some story research, assuming that the state is still afloat after the Mighty Mississippi gets finished with it. I was there last year about this time, just days after the BP/Deepwater Horizon disaster that flooded the state’s coastline and wetlands with billions of gallons of crude oil.
As the Mississippi overflows its banks, I’m visualizing the levee that protects little Carville Louisiana. It’s a dot of a place, just a pinhead on a map of the southern U.S. But what I discovered there last year was something I had never seen in all of my travels around the world – something that I didn’t really think existed anymore.
In Carville Louisiana, I visited a leper colony. If you’re like me when I realized where I was going and what I was doing, you recoiled and visions of Biblical plagues flashed across your mind’s eye at the word “leper.”
But by the time I left, I felt shame for my reaction. Maybe this story will make you feel just a little uncomfortable as well, but more importantly, open your eyes, like mine did. That’s what travel is supposed to do after all, open your mind and your eyes and maybe your heart.
First of all, I thought leprosy didn’t exist any longer, that it was one of those diseases that we have somehow eliminated. But no, leprosy is alive and well and folks with it are living among us every day. But there is a cure today, and it’s all because of what happened in Carville.
Third – it’s not politically correct to call it leprosy. It’s called Hansen’s Disease, and Carville is the home of the National Hansen’s Disease Museum, and if you find yourself traveling near Baton Rouge, I really encourage you to stop in. You might learn something.
This beautiful home was an abandoned plantation in 1894 when seven people diagnosed with Hansen’s Disease were put off a barge there and told not to leave. Of course, the house didn’t look so great at the time, and the people had no resources whatsoever for their survival.
Two years later, the Daughters of Charity, a religious order from New Orleans, came to minister to the patients. By 1921, the federal government took over. We have all heard of Father Damien and the leper colony on isolated Molokai, but who knew this was going on in Louisiana.
On a tour of the museum and grounds, you obviously learn more about the disease. Body parts don’t fall off, but were often amputated because the disease leaves hands and feet with no sensitivity to pain and infection would set in after trauma. Deformities were also a result of nerve damage. Patients often lost their eyesight.
As difficult as the disease was physically, the emotional toll on the residents at Carville was worse. Those confined here lost their right to vote, did not have access to telephones, could send and receive mail only after it had been cooked in an oven, on and on. It was a big day when Coca-Cola decided to deliver to the leprosarium, but they didn’t want their bottles back for fear of the disease. You’ll see hundreds of glass Coke bottles in landscaping around the property, even in the cemetery.
As a US government facility, research was a constant here, and some of it led to significant treatments and medication for diabetes. Finally in 1941 came the Miracle at Carville. Putome is the name of the drug, and as a result, those now diagnosed with leprosy – and there are some 200 new cases a year in the US – can live a normal, healthy, productive life.
At its height, about 400 people lived here with leprosy, and over the years, more than 5000 patients spent time at Carville. The government closed the facility in 1999. Yet, there are 10 elderly residents remaining today. They’ve lived here all of their lives. They have no place else to go, and the small levee holding back the Mississippi River is less than 100 yards away.