A Time to Heal

By Victoria Eaton '05


March 2005, I was awarded an anthropology research grant from the Fulbright Program, to investigate social changes in the lives of people suffering from Hansen's Disease (commonly known as leprosy). I work at the Fundacion Padre Damian (Father Damien Foundation), a non-profit organization that provides health and spiritual care for the patients. The Foundation has 45 to 50 inpatients and serves 300 to 500 outpatients and their families at any given time. We provide medications and medical services, share donated medical supplies with patient's home communities, and find sponsors to provide scholarships for children of Hansen patients.

This has been the most fulfilling experience of my life, and has definitely provided a life path for me. Within the Foundation, I wear many hats - researcher, counselor, physical therapist, arts and crafts teacher, recreation therapist, part-time pharmacist, fundraising coordinator, and administrative assistant. But the most rewarding and challenging job is working with the patients. As an anthropologist, I have been taught to keep my distance from my "informants." However, it is difficult to stay "away" when one works with a group of people who have been cast away from society. Of the 14 female inpatients present on Mother's Day, only three received visits and/or phone calls. The realm of anthropology is complicated because humans "working" together affect one another.

Hansen's Disease and its victims no longer need to be stigmatized. It is a completely curable, infectious disease, caused by Mycobacterium leprae, a close relative to the tuberculosis bacterium. It affects populations in which malnourishment, poor hygiene, and lowered immune defenses are prevalent. It mainly affects the nervous system, the skin, and the ocular system - but can eventually affect bones and cartilage as well. The peripheral nerves become paralyzed, and the sensation of pain is lost - thus complicating life further when patients injure themselves without knowing it, allowing infections to progress to dangerous states. Early detection is extremely important.

While working here I have witnessed miracles of modern medicine. In November, I was in charge of coordinating the activities of a volunteer medical team from Project Perfect World. I also served as a medical translator in the operating room when the Project doctors pioneered the use of nerve decompression surgery for Hansen's patients to restore tactile sensibility. To be present when patients woke up in the recovery room and realized that feeling had been restored to their hands and feet, and to see the joy and wonder in their faces was an indescribable experience.

Comforting patients in difficult times (such as when their chronic ulcers were being treated, or after a loved one had passed away) has been another one of my more rewarding experiences of the past year. Patient stories, smiles, and their heartfelt thanks, also will make me forever grateful to the Fulbright Program. With all the possible connections between anthropology and public health, I plan to pursue graduate studies in public health, and to continue working with Hansen's patients.