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For Lent this year, we’re focusing on Purulia Hospital in India and the many people who rely on its services. Here, Head of Mission Development Zoë Bunter reflects on a visit to Purulia leprosy community.
The heat was overwhelming as we climbed out of the air-conditioned car we had travelled in. I glanced around, trying to take it all in. I had never visited a leprosy community before and this one, near Purulia hospital in India, was in a remote location. We had travelled for some time along rough tracks and makeshift roads to get here and now it felt as though we were in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. Curious faces watched us as we arrived, and the hospital staff greeted old friends and introduced my travel companion and I.
I was on my first trip with the Leprosy Mission back in 2014, to see the work for myself. My travelling companion, Hassan, was a volunteer and a photographer, capturing scenes of our work. We had pulled up in the centre of the community, close to the men’s quarters. The people who lived here looked at us expectantly and I knew I was expected to say something to the 30 or 40 people gathered around us.
The hospital nurse translated. I said how honoured I was to visit them from thousands of miles away, how we would love to spend some time with them, and I asked permission to come into their community for a few hours. Most of all I said I carried love with me – the love and care of people in England and Wales who prayed, gave gifts, and sent messages of encouragement and care.
The community would have once been called a ‘leprosy colony’. The people lived in this isolated place, surrounded by trees, because they had been rejected from the town. Many had severe disabilities and all of them were elderly. My guess is that the youngest person here would have been in their early-seventies, the oldest well into their eighties. They were decades younger when leprosy first took hold, before there was a cure. The disease ravaged their bodies and caused irreversible damage to hands, feet, arms and legs. They were cast out of homes and families, and Purulia took them in.
The noise of bird song was almost deafening, as we trudged the five-minute walk through the long grass to where the women lived. Smiles greeted us and women with faces wearing the marks of hard lives welcomed us into their humble homes. Built of brick, each person had their own room to sleep in. But every mealtime all the residents came together in the centre of the community where food was cooked over an open fire. Mealtimes were a social occasion!
The nurse explained about the solar lamps we saw on the buildings. He told us the government had refused to provide electricity to the community so the only light at night was through solar energy. These people weren’t considered important enough to need electricity.
As we walked back to where the food was cooked and where the men lived I was struck by something; love was here in this place.
The hospital staff and residents chatted easily – there was laughter and joking, there was compassion and care. The Purulia Hospital car or minibus would come here to collect those needing hospital treatment, and return them home after they had received medication, recovered from surgery or had ulcers and wounds dressed. But there was also love among this group of very special people. They sat together talking and sharing; together they weaved mattresses or drew water from the water pump. They knew each other like brothers and sisters, a big extended family.
I asked a woman about her life here in the community and she said, with a beaming smile, that she was happy here. Here, she told me, she was with others like her. No hatred, no name-calling. This was her home.
I had come from the UK hearing stories in the news about elderly and frail people struggling with the torment of loneliness. Here there was no such thing. I don’t want to romanticise life in Purulia Leprosy Community, it was clearly a hard life with none of the luxuries that I so easily take for granted. Sores and ulcers were a constant threat, the risk of infection and sepsis was very real. But here I saw love. People thrown together by the hatred of those who didn’t understand had found friendship, community and peace.
As I remember that morning in India, I am challenged by my misconceptions of what will bring me peace. I often think it will be security, nothing to worry about, being able to switch off from anxiety.
But I have seen the ‘surpasses all understanding’ peace that is promised in the Bible alive and well in a place where there is little security and everything to worry about. But what I do know is that this little community in West Bengal, and those who live here, have been bathed in the prayers of the prayer warriors of The Leprosy Mission – in the UK, in the chapel at Purulia Hospital and across the globe.
We do not always realise the power of our prayers, but I have seen the love of God poured out on those whom the world rejected, in loving response to the prayers of the saints.
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)
In late 2016, Kate Gent visited Purulia Hospital in West Bengal to see how Leprosy Mission staff are dealing with a huge rise in patient numbers there. Here, she shares her story.
Lavanya sat staring at her hands – this said it all. Her battle against leprosy had begun.
We sat in the counselling room at Purulia Hospital, a shared space with no privacy. Another consultation was about to start and there were people queuing nearby. I felt flustered for her.
Even the word leprosy is enough to fill people here in India with dread. But I admired Lavanya’s courage in the face of adversity.
It took a huge amount of bravery for her to make the long journey back to the hospital to start her treatment and she was clearly feeling very anxious. I can see it in her eyes, her posture, as wrapped up in a cardigan and scarf, she clutches her hands together tightly.
She’s experienced tingling and pain in her arm. There’s a risk this could be signs of nerve damage from leprosy. Without close monitoring this could develop into serious problems, such as immovable clawed hands.
The doctor presses her elbow to test the nerves; he says they have thickened. This isn’t good news.
He points out the pale skin patches, slightly faded but still numb. Leprosy must be so easy to misdiagnose without the skill and expertise of these doctors.
Lavanya’s lips tremble: she needs further tests. In a tiny room, the physiotherapist examines her palms and soles of her feet. With her eyes closed, she points out where she feels sensation.
Leprosy has caused greater damage than she thought. Although her hands are still reasonably flexible, she will need continued monitoring of the nerves and physiotherapy.
She says she is okay, but then she puts her head in her hands. Tears begin to roll down her cheeks. Self consciously she looks at me and when she saw my eyes fill with tears too, gradually, she begins to open up.
When Lavanya first found the numb patches, she tried homeopathic remedies. After three months she came to Purulia, having heard of the hospital’s reputation for skin and eye care, but her numbness was even worse by that point.
When she was diagnosed with leprosy she was really scared. Her husband seems supportive but he also tells her it’s a bad disease so she shouldn’t tell the neighbours about it.
She wouldn’t dare – she’s the only one with leprosy in the village. She will never tell her friends because she’s too afraid she will end up alone.
Her biggest concern is that her husband could turn against her. They have two little children; her youngest has just started walking and her son has just turned five. If he were to throw her out, how could she manage alone?
My heart went out to Lavanya, and I prayed that God would help me to help her. As our only shared language, she lent me a gentle, sad smile and wiped her tears with her scarf.
After I had followed her through her outpatient journey, we shared a few moments near the central courtyard.
A little girl came toddling over, her tiny arms outstretched. Lavanya bent down and scooped her up. Her eyes lit up: her baby girl was there waiting for her.
The road ahead is not going to be easy for this family. Although it’s fantastic that Lavanya’s got the cure and is in the hands of experts, there is still a lot for her to face. She will need Purulia Hospital more than ever, returning every month for her medicines, to learn physiotherapy exercises and to receive check-ups.
As our time together drew to a close, her little girl began rubbing her sleepy eyes, she turned her head and nestled into her mum, ready for their long journey back home – 60 miles from the hospital.
Even now I’m back in England, I think of Lavanya often. I’m so thankful that Purulia Hospital is uniquely placed in an area of India with high levels of leprosy. But what weighs heavy on my heart is the strain this hospital is under.
There are so many more people who still need help and I would hate to see them turned away. I owe it to Lavanya and her daughter to not let that happen. That’s why I resolved to tell as many people as I can about my visit to Purulia. The hospital needs a new Outpatients’ Department – and you can partner with The Leprosy Mission to make it happen. Find out how and give a gift today.