Nun "discovers" Vietnam leprosariums

A Vietnamese nun has made it her mission to find and visit "undocumented" state-run leprosariums in the country's northern provinces - but there are more still to be "discovered", she says.

"I have found and visited 12 state-run leprosariums across all the northern provinces in the past 16 years," Sacred Heart Sr Xuan told UCA News.

Leprosariums in the region are not documented in any directory, she explained, so she literally goes looking for them. This is in addition to her "steady" work at the state-run leprosarium in Qua Cam, 35 km north of Ha Noi. A Catholic priest founded this facility in 1913 but government authorities later took control of it.

The Church erected a number of leprosariums in northern Vietnam before the 1954 exodus, when about one million Catholics including clergy and Religious fled south to escape communist rule.

After years of war, communist forces reunified the country in 1975, confiscating all Church welfare facilities. The government also set up leprosariums on its own.

Over time, however, many of these older and newer facilities were forgotten, Sr Xuan said. Even local government authorities and parish priests sometimes do not know of any leprosarium or people with leprosy in their locality, she lamented.

The 50-year-old nun recalled that she discovered some leprosariums where people were wearing rags for clothes and living in the most miserable of conditions, with no blankets, mosquito nets or cooking facilities.

After finding a leprosarium, she starts looking for people with leprosy living in nearby forests or ostracised by their neighbours. She said she has found many such people, who tell her about fellow sufferers who have died of hunger, about not going to the local market for 10 years or not even meeting another person for an entire year.

One man, Than, who is not a Catholic, told UCA News his family had been ostracised and they had to live alone, barely managing to stay alive until Sr Xuan found them.

"Our son had just died of hunger," when she visited three years ago for the first time, he recalled. "She offered us food, blankets, mosquito nets and other things, and built a house for us."

The Sacred Heart nun acknowledged that when she discovers a leprosarium, her priority is to provide patients what they lack to meet their basic needs. She then works with the local government to build houses and dig wells, she said, adding that she also arranges scholarships for their children. For this work she relies on foreign benefactors.

Beyond tending to these physical needs, Sr Xuan, who joined the Sacred Heart Institute in 1976, introduces the people to others with the same disease, as well as to Church people and government authorities. She organises camps and other outings for them, taking them to visit other leprosariums, bishops' houses and sometimes the beach, she added.

Throughout the year, she revisits leprosariums she has discovered and brings the residents rice, sugar, milk, instant noodles, detergent and clothes. "I visit to help people suffering from leprosy live with dignity and reduce discrimination against them," she says.

Pham Ngoc Hai, 70, who lives at Phu Binh leprosarium in Thai Nguyen province, 70 km northeast of Ha Noi, said the nun helps patients meet other people "so they can understand and accept us."

In the past, Hai said, people disfigured by leprosy did not dare go out in public for fear of discrimination. He recalls being forced off buses and left by the side of the road after fellow passengers recognised his condition. "But now things have changed," he added.

When Sr Xuan first visited the facility in 1987 to offer her services, the leprosarium officials were wary of her offer to serve with no salary and turned her down. She then spent three years studying health-care skills for people with leprosy at Di Linh leprosarium in southern Vietnam, but still had to wait another year before she was allowed into the Qua Cam facility.

While working there, she studied orthopedic surgery and how to produce artificial limbs. Now she conducts surgery there.

Nguyen Van Trung, who has lived in the facility since 1991, describes Sr Xuan as "the patients' mother," who brings them up and even finds husbands or wives for their children.

Nun 'Discovers' Leprosariums In Northern Vietnam (UCA News, 20/3/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Van Mon Leprosy Hospital, Thai Binh province

Pope appeals for leprosy eradication (CathNews, 31/1/06)

21 Mar 2007