Life at the Karunalaya Leprosy Care Centre

By Fr. Joseph Philip SVD on July 25, 2019

Located in Puriin, the Indian state of Odisha, the Karunalaya Leprosy Care Centre was founded in 1975 by the late Father Marian Zelazek SVD to provide clean housing, food, education, healthcare and social integration to people who to this day are considered “untouchables.” 

Now providing housing to 1,000 people (including the children of those with leprosy) the center continues to carry out Fr. Marian’s vision.

Today, Karunalaya serves not only the people of Puri district, but also a number of nearby districts and even the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. As the Indian government has closed many of its leprosy centers, ours remains the only one in the vicinity dedicated to and specializing in the care of leprosy patients.

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Providing Hospital Quality Care to the Vulnerable Leprosy Population

The centerpiece of our healthcare mission at Karunalaya is the 22-bed, short-stay hospital where leprosy patients can be admitted for treatment, including therapy for the ulcerations often caused by the disease. Because many of our patients are not accepted at other hospitals, they can also find care for general illnesses here. To save money we buy most of our general medicines from a medical wholesale outlet in Bhubaneswar.

For immediate needs, we get medications from the local pharmacy. Besides medicines for leprosy, we also supply the more common medicines: antibiotics, cough syrup, vitamin tablets and painkillers. We also stock baby food for infants in our care. No hospital is complete without  a laboratory. Here, pathology work and tests to detect disease are constantly in demand. Our bandaging and dressing room is always busy as well.

Thanks to generous donations, both rooms are now stocked with new equipment including scissors, trays, stethoscope and a blood pressure machine. We are lucky to have Dr. S. B. Mahapatra, a specialized leprologist, with his ability to quickly diagnose leprosy cases. He is a great asset to our center. Dr. Mahapatra leads care clinics twice a week to assist those living with leprosy.

Our Dedicated Staff Wear Many Hats

The town dentist joins our staff once a month to host a clinic. Unfortunately, our dental chair, which is more than 25 years old, needs some serious repairs. We hope to have it fixed this year. Also on staff is a shoemaker who is trained to make the special orthopedic shoes with hard rubber soles that suit leprosy patients who suffer from neuropathy. We have a healthcare worker dedicated to dressing leprosy patients’ wounds. We regularly treat 89 patients with ulceration wounds. Some of them have had ulcerations that have not healed for 20 years.

Fortunately, we have recently acquired a new medicine from Germany called Octenisept that is helping to heal these old wounds. We also have two paramedics who have been with the Leprosy Care Centre for many years. In addition to their emergency training they can also do laboratory work and basic dental care. They maintain patient records, check the medicine stock and handle a multitude of necessary paperwork. As you can see everyone at the Leprosy Care Centre wears many hats! The first priority of our two nurses is tending to the patients, but they also feed them and keep the hospital clean.

Our Mercy Kitchen provides three meals a day for the hospital as well as the handicapped and the elderly. A staff member delivers food to those patients too sick to go to the kitchen themselves. The same staffer also washes the many hospital bed linens. This year we got a washing machine, and she was thrilled! We have an “all-rounder” on staff who brings the patients to and from the hospital and tends to the trees and plants on the grounds. Finally, there is the night watchman keeping everyone safe.

The Resurgence of Leprosy in Recent Years

Those who work at our Leprosy Care Centre have a practical understanding of living with leprosy.

Out of our staff of eight, six have been treated for leprosy. Some have minor disabilities because of the disease. Around the world there are fewer cases of leprosy, but in Odisha the rate is increasing. In 2011, no new cases were reported in India, and leprosy was declared eradicated. Then new cases began to emerge in 2013, and the disease continues to grow. Last year we treated seven new cases of leprosy. Out of the seven, three were completely cured, but two remain in our center for treatment.

We continue our work believing medicine and loving care will decrease the number of cases again in the coming years.

Despite Their Disease, Many Patients Work to Help Make a Living

While our hospital is the center of our mission, Fr. Marian’s vision lives on in many ways.

To teach self-reliance, the center has organized a cooperative that enables some of our long-term patient-residents to earn a living. With local raw materials of coconut fiber and jute fiber, weavers make rope and doormats. Currently they are using a manual loom, but our goal is to add mechanical looms. In this small industry we employ 22 people, and we hope to employ a few more when we mechanize the looms.

Another employment opportunity for long-term patient-residents is a small farm named Garden of Hope. Here we cultivate vegetables and coconuts for our kitchen. Besides the garden, our small agricultural operation includes two large fishponds that keep the kitchen stocked with fish and a dairy with seven cows that provides milk for the patients and children.

Our Mercy Kitchen serves three meals a day to all leprosy patients unable to work or earn their daily living by begging (which is their sole source of income). These are the patients in serious need of help. They are the leprosy patients with physical disabilities or unhealed wounds needing regular medical attention. Many elderly from the “untouchable colony” also take their meals at the Mercy Kitchen. They live alone without any family support.

Twice a year, on Christmas and during the Hindu festival, we distribute clothing to the elderly, but sadly many of their needs go beyond material things. In hope of providing one last dignity, at the end of their life we are there to take care of their final expenses.

Many Important Projects Have Taken Place in Recent Years, Much Work Remains

In recent years we have undertaken several projects to improve the lives of our patients and residents: 

  • This year we received funding for a 3-kilovolt solar power system for the hospital. Patients now have 24-hour power without fear of an outage. 

  • Over the last three years we began a housing renovation project, with a goal of 50 houses. To date 20 houses are completed. The remaining houses are dilapidated and require total reconstruction. 

  • We have completed a school building where 680 children study. Of that number, 198 children come from a leprosy background.

More bathroom facilities are now needed, and a playground is on our wish list too. Forty-three years ago, Fr. Marian founded Karunalaya Leprosy Care Centre and began a mission of solidarity with the most outcast and vulnerable people of India.

Thanks to your generosity, we proudly continue to carry on and grow his mission, fighting the battle against this dreaded disease and the stigma it carries. 

If you feel moved to help Fr. Joseph in his work at the Karunalaya Leprosy Care Centre, consider donating today on the website to provide necessary healthcare to the impoverished lepers of India!

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