[by Earl Blacklock] Leprosy is a chronic bacterial infection which causes disfiguring skin lesions, blindness, and absorption of bones and cartilage.
Formally known as Hansen’s disease, leprosy is only mildly communicable. Nevertheless, over a period spanning thousands of years, it has been a disease that has meant fear, rejection, and personal terror. Since its first diagnosis in the United States, thousands of people contracted the disease. Those diagnosed with the disease suffered shame and sorrow.
Starting in 1921, public health authorities in the United States sent patients diagnosed with leprosy to the Public Health Service Center in Carville, Louisiana for isolation and treatment. Mail to the outside could only be sent by a staff member, after sterilization.
Residents were denied the vote, or even a telephone to communicate with the outside world. They were considered unclean, best isolated from “regular” people – as lepers had been since biblical times.
Treatment consisted of a foul-smelling tree extract called Chaulmoogra oil, which was largely ineffective. As new antibiotic treatments held out new hope for a more successful outcome, public health authorities and the residents of Carville began a campaign to raise awareness about leprosy. The campaign focused on how difficult it was for the disease to be acquired from human to human contact, given proper precautions. Indeed, no Carville worker had ever acquired the disease.
Nevertheless, Carville remained a stark place. The effort to give the public the facts about leprosy had only limited success until Gertrude Hornbostel, wife of U.S. Army Major Hans George Hornbostel, contracted the disease in the Philippines after years of imprisonment by the Japanese.
To the astonishment of the nation’s press, Major Hornbostel, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, announced his decision to share her isolation at Carville, even though it would likely be for the remainder of his life.
The news media responded with uninformed and erroneous explanations of leprosy and the prospects for its treatment. All questioned the Major’s decision to share his wife’s fate. One doctor said “There is a 100 percent chance of infection for Major Hornbostel if he continues to live with her.” She, it was said, was certain to die.
But Gertrude Hornbostel didn’t die. With her husband by her side, she was successfully treated between 1946 and 1949 with a combination of an antibiotic and a sulfone drug. And the publicity over Major Hornbostel’s decision shone light on the changing prospects for the patients at Carville. Laws restricting their freedoms were quietly removed from the books.
Hans Hornbostel understood what it meant to marry for both better and for worse. Until the war, he and his wife had not been separated since their marriage in Guam in 1913. He was determined to spend the rest of his life with his bride.
What an example of total and complete love! This is the kind of faithful love that Paul had in mind when he said to the church in Corinth “I promised you as a bride to one husband, Christ” (II Corinthians 11:2).
Feature image: 19melissa68/Foter/CC-BY-NC