Heart of Louisiana: Miracle at Carville

There was no end to the harsh consequences of leprosy, a dreaded disease that predates the Bible that would send individuals and families into hiding.

"Some people were abandoned by their families," says Elizabeth Schexnayder, curator of the National Hansen's Disease Museum in Carville, La.  "Some people were pushed out of the communities.  Some people's families paid the price by losing jobs.  Perhaps engagements would end, marriages would end."

In 1894, Louisiana created an isolated hospital for people with leprosy, or Hansen's disease, in the small river town of Carville.

In the early 1900's, if you were diagnosed with leprosy, you were required by Louisiana law to come to Carville.  And once you entered the facility, you knew there was very little chance you would ever get out.

"That was the expectation, that chances are you're going to be here for life," says Schexnayder.  "There was no drug treatment then."

The museum occupies just a small portion of the once-sprawling hospital and research facility.

In the early days, the Daughters of Charity helped care for patients, while doctors spent decades searching for a cure.  The patients were not allowed to leave the hospital grounds.

"They were referred to as inmates and there were some very strict rules," says Schexnayder.

Simeon Peterson has lived at the Carville facility for 61 years.  Although long cured of Hansen's disease, he is one of a half-dozen former patients who are allowed to live out their lives here.  Peterson was diagnosed with the disease at age 6 in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"It was very depressing," says Peterson. "They said when we get in that hospital over there, we couldn't get out, we were staying.  Though my mother was living on the same island, I couldn't go visit her. It was against the law."

In 1951, Peterson and 20 other patients from the Virgin Islands were transferred to Carville, which had become a national research center for Hansen's disease.  At Carville, there was hope.

"When I came here, I came here to stay until I passed away because I knew I couldn't go back home no more, because the people over there will not accept me," Peterson tells us.

The effects of Hansen's disease can be obvious, as it inflicts various deformities on its victims.

"When I came here I had all my fingers," recalls Peterson.  "But since I don't have all the feeling in my fingers, I hold things hot and it affects my bone."

"If you lost sensation, then you could damage yourself, because you can't feel heat or cold or even an injury, and that repeated injury cause the fingers and toes to be reabsorbed into the body," says Schexnayder.

In the 1940's, Dr. Guy Faget of New Orleans discovered a drug therapy that could reverse the effects of Hansen's disease.  It was called "the miracle at Carville" -- A disease that had stigmatized humans for thousands of years had a cure.

Peterson is also disease free, but for years there were limits on his freedom and physical contact with other people.

"My mother wasn't afraid," says Peterson.  "But my sister, she was afraid. She never hugged me. She never shook my hand."

At age 84, Simeon Peterson knows that one day, he will be buried in the hospital cemetery along with other patients and Daughters of Charity.  He now volunteers in the museum, trying to erase the misunderstanding, the fear and the stigma of a disease that was finally cured at Carville.

About 100,000 people a year still get Hansen's disease in the United States. The numbers are much larger in other tropical countries.

Thanks to the groundbreaking research at Carville, there are now effective medications for treating the disease.  And isolating patients in "leper colonies" is not necessary.

For more information, go online to http://www.hrsa.gov/hansensdisease/museum/index.html.