Vicki Davison, Partnership Advisor, reflects on her recent visit to India.
About half way through the trip, we spent a morning at Salur Hospital, the only hospital in Andhra Pradesh State that provides specialist treatment for leprosy-affected people. As we arrived, we were greeted by the hospital superintendent who showed us round several wards and explained the services offered at the hospital. Salur treats approximately 25,000 patients a year; the treatment provided for general patients subsidises the cost of care for leprosy-affected people. Specialist reconstructive surgery, eye care, ulcer care and diagnostic tests are all available for leprosy patients.
We visited a few of the wards, stopping to pray with patients and listen to their stories. Having spent some time in the men’s ulcer care ward, we were told there was one patient who we had to meet; the staff led us along the corridor into the women’s ward and she was immediately obvious. A young woman of only 20-years-old, Sadhika sat cross-legged on her hospital bed. She was quick to greet me as I sat by her, but her beautiful smile did little to mask the large discoloured patches on her cheeks and deep sadness in her eyes.
Sadhika grew up in Andhra Pradesh with her parents and two older sisters, both of whom are married. From a poor family, she has never been to school and is illiterate. A few years ago, Sadhika developed discoloured patches on her face and arms. Then, when playing with her friends, she caught her foot against a rock. Although it was badly damaged, she didn’t feel a thing. Her family began to panic – they knew something was wrong but couldn’t understand what was happening to their daughter. They took her to Vizianagaram where she was diagnosed with leprosy.
Although her family remained supportive, Sadhika became consumed with guilt and self-hatred. She spent every day terrified that someone would find out she had leprosy. She knew that discrimination because of this disease could be extreme – that she could be abandoned by her community and forced to leave her family. What would she do without them? Unable to read or write, and living under the stigma of leprosy, how would she earn money to eat? Would she have to beg, or worse? And what would happen to her sisters if their in-laws found out? Ashamed to be associated with a family tainted by leprosy, would their husbands leave? Would she ever be anything but a burden to her family? What good was a life ruined by leprosy?
Over time, Sadhika lost all sense of self-worth and became suicidal. The burden of suffering with leprosy overshadowed everything else in her life – her hopes and dreams, even her love for her family. Sadhika struggled on until one day she could bear it no longer. She planned to walk to the local train line and throw herself onto the tracks.
Thankfully something stopped her.
And it wasn’t long before Sadhika was referred to Salur Hospital for specialist treatment and counselling. When I met her, Sadhika had undergone reconstructive surgery on both of her hands to correct the deformities caused by leprosy. Her right foot was carefully bandaged up to cover the ulcer that had formed from an infected cut – a consequence of nerve damage. Although Sadhika has lost all feeling in her feet and will have to practice self-care for the rest of her life, her hands are regaining strength with regular physiotherapy exercises.
More importantly, she has found healing through counselling at the hospital and is starting to dream again.
Sadhika’s whole face lit up as she told me how she plans to learn tailoring at our Vocational Training Centre in Vizianagaram. Clothed in a vibrant pink shalwar kameez, I could imagine her sitting behind a sewing machine, chatting and laughing with the other girls, and I couldn’t wait for her training to start.
Sadhika will stay at Salur while her ulcers heal and her hands become stronger. Then she will go to live at the Vocational Training Centre, where she will learn to read and write, and take English and computer lessons.
It was a real privilege to meet Sadhika and hear how she is overcoming the stigma, shame and physical effects of leprosy.
And I’m so excited to see her take her next step and learn tailoring at the training centre – what a transformation that will be!