Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Changing the Perception Towards Hansen Disease in Society

Written up recently in the Chosun Ilbo, Franciscan Fr. Yu  has been assisting and comforting those diagnosed with Hansen's disease for the last 31 years. He came to Korea in 1976 from Spain, a country not unlike Korea, both populations having experienced the horrors of war. Now 65-years old, he has made working with the survivors of this horrible disease his mission in life.

After Mass every morning, he makes the rounds of the patients. "Although I can't see and hear, I know it's the priest," says one grandmother, "he's the only one who warmly hugs us."

The facility of 200 patients, once a village with thatched, slate-roofed houses that made up the colony, shunned by society, is now a much different community thanks to Fr. Yu. He says that you can tell by their eyes that they desire to be loved. He serves not only as their chaplain but as the driver for the community; they feel uncomfortable using public transportation, he says, so he takes them where they want to go and does their errands for them. During this time, he has been at the bedside of over 500 who have died; he wants them to know they are not alone at the last moment. He has also prepared the bodies for burial, serving as their undertaker. He was proud of the Hwan Gap party they gave him on his  61st birthday. He considers them as family and hopes to be with them for his 70th and 80th, to give hugs.

The  disease can lead to disfigurement of the outer limbs and facial features. With the introduction in the early 1980s of multi-drug therapy (MDT), the disease has been successfully treated, and those afflicted are no longer carriers of the disease; confinement is no longer necessary.  But the facts of the case have not lessened the fears of many when they see the tell-tale marks of the disease.  Attempts have been made to give these unfairly treated citizens their human rights but ideas change very slowly.

Korea does a good job, however, in taking care of those who have the disease, which has been eradicated in Korea. But unfounded, fearful thinking is not easily eradicated. The word leprosy--named after the infecting bacterium (M. leprae) discovered by a Norwegian physician Gerhard Hansen--is not used now as often, which is a sign of  change. But problems still exist. When a person is known to have someone in the family who had the disease, it becomes difficult to speak about it and prospects of marriage are diminished.

 Fr. Yu is helping to change this thinking in the least confrontational and yet meaningful way possible: doing what many fear to do.

No comments: