Let me tell you about some of the most compassionate people I have ever met…
“In Italy, we never saw leprosy. In India, leprosy is still a stigma. Nobody is ready to help people affected with leprosy. It was difficult initially as the patients would smell and had worms all over their bodies as they lost sensation,” says Sr. Bertilla. “But it was our desire to serve these people and the dignity of the human being was much more than their dirtiness,” adds Sr. Lucia.
Both born in Italy, 69-year old Sr. Bertilla Capra and 64-year old Sr. Lucia Pala belong to the congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate also known as PIME – Pontificio Instituto Missioni Estere (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Mission). After joining the convent, they completed their nursing courses in Italy and had a mission to serve the sick and the needy. Their compassion for fellow human beings brought them to India leaving their hometown Italy. “I had a desire to go to either India or Bangladesh to help leprosy patients because they are neglected and shunned away by society,” says Sr. Lucia. After expressing her desire, she was deputed to India in 1977 and Sr. Bertilla in 1970 to serve leprosy patients in India. The duo worked in Bimavaram at Eluru in Andhra Pradesh caring for leprosy and tuberculosis patients. Sr. Bertilla came to Mumbai in 1981 and Sr. Lucia in 1985 to join the Vimala Dermatological Center. Their dedication towards their mission even led them to learn languages such as Telugu, Hindi and Marathi to help them to communicate better.
Sr. Bertilla and Sr. Lucia have completed 27 and 23 years respectively at Vimala Dermatological Center. The center was established in 1976 and has three wards for men, women and for the children of leprosy patients. The center aims to detect all existing cases of leprosy and tuberculosis and to treat these ailments. The center also offers hospitalization facilities and surgical treatments as well.
“Our main endeavor is to spread awareness and educate people about leprosy. We conduct talks and seminars on leprosy care,” says Sr. Bertilla, superintendent of Vimala Dermatological Center. To begin with the sisters clarify the myths associated with leprosy. “People believe that leprosy is a curse from God. However, leprosy is not only for the poor. It can attack anybody,” informs Sr. Lucia who stresses that leprosy is curable and does not spread through touch.
Vimala Dermatological Center has well qualified teams specializing in medicine, surgery, rehabilitation and paramedical activities. After treatment, the patients are adequately rehabilitated. They are taught how to carry out their daily activities even if their finger or toes or limbs are amputated. Most of the patients receive help for housing, employment, loans and training in tailoring, screen printing and motor mechanics.
The center provides counseling sessions for the families of those suffering from leprosy, which includes education on leprosy. “In spite of this, some families want the patients to stay here forever and do not want to take them back home.
The children’s ward was started in order to give shelter to girls between the age of four – 15 years whose parents are suffering from leprosy and cannot afford to give them education and a decent living. Some of the girls have contracted leprosy and they undergo treatment at the center until they have recovered.
We visited the children ward during their classroom time and they captured my attention for the rest of the morning. They seem enchanted by our visit. They looked at us with beautiful big black eyes and some of the brightest smiles that can only be compared to the innocence of their souls. I was invited to read them stories from the English books they were learning from. They were fascinated by how quick I flipped my camera and took pictures of them one after another. They started to pose for the pictures asking me later to see how they look on them. I can assure you that many of these girls have never seen a picture of themselves and I was glad to bring a little bit of joy to their day by taking pictures of them. So as I read stories out loud they all repeated after me. And here I was, an immigrant myself teaching these girls how to speak English, a language that I still speak with an accent after all these years. I felt overwhelmed by emotion and happiness. It is difficult for me to explain how I felt and for others to understand it, but these girls without having really much, or nothing at all, infused me with such a high dose of optimism and hope. Yet their hope and resilience amazed me; the ability of their spirits to overcome crippling challenges has inspired me. Even in the most deprived circumstances they are still children, they laugh and play, perhaps far less frequently than others; they develop strong bonds and relationships to create family where none exists; and most of all they have an enormous amount of love to give.
I felt everything I loved about the place converge together inside me in that moment. I am eternally thankful for have spent that day with them because they have taught me that you do not need much than your time and willingness to help others and make a difference in people’s lives. Most of all they have an enormous amount of love to give for nothing more than just showing up. It was getting late sooner than expected. It is true what they say that time goes by flying by when you are having the most fun. I promised them that I would send the pictures I took of them as a keepsake of my visit. I will never forget them.
Back to my Heroes…
Sr. Bertilla and Sr. Lucia visit their hometown Italy once every four years. During their visit back home, they educate the people in Italy about leprosy and collect funds to run the hospital here, as they do not receive any grant from the government. Former leprosy patients have been employed in Vimala Dermatological Centre to stitch clothes, bags and make Christmas decorations. These clothes, bags and decorations are taken to Italy where they are sold in order to generate funds. I couldn’t resist buying some of these items, not because I need them but because they were made with a lot of hard work and dedication, and I just couldn’t ignore that.