I have recently finished a book called The Island by Victoria Hislop. A friend lent me this book following my repeated attempts at starting books that were difficult literary works and getting absolutely nowhere. My brain simply cannot function well enough to plough through complicated plot lines and fancy language when I have had an average of four hours of sleep each night. There will come a time for that sort of reading, but right now, it’s time for “beach books” that don’t require too much energy.
I started this book at the beginning of last week and had finished by the end of the week. It draws you into a story of tragedy that struck a Grecian family living near the island of Spinalonga. Little did I know, Spinalonga is a real place. While the story was based on fictional characters, the location it was set was and is a real place.
So what is Spinalonga known for? Leprosy. In the early 1900s, people infected with leprosy (Hansen’s disease) were torn away from their families and lives and banned to finishing off their last days on an island with people infected with the same disease. Leprosy is a bacterial infection that destroys nerve endings and causes disfiguring skin sores all over the body. The skin sores often breed infection and the loss of nerve endings lead to losing or destroying limbs (if you can’t feel yourself being cut or burned, you aren’t able to keep safe). Often, people with leprosy would die as a result of infections from the disease.
Sounds horrendous. And in the early 1900s, the people of Greece thought it sounded horrendous as well. So once lesions were found on the body, that person would quickly be banned to Spinalonga to avoid infecting anyone else with the disease. Mothers torn away from their children. Brothers from sisters. Husbands from wives. Doctors and lawyers and engineers were unable to continue in their practices. Life ended once you caught leprosy. You were shunned. Thought of as dirty and unclean. No one wanted you.
People had and still have misconceptions that leprosy is spread by being in the same room, breathing the same air, and touching the infected person. But this isn’t the case. Leprosy is spread by repeated contact with someone that you have been exposed to their nose or mouth droplets. But rumors of its outrageously contagious nature spread and people were scared of those infected with leprosy. So they were sent to Spinalonga.
And as horrific as it sounds to be sent away to a remote island, there was an odd sweetness that came with being able to enter into society once again. Neighbours spoke to you. People didn’t scurry away at the sight of you. You could wander streets in freedom. Spinalonga ironically was life-giving in some odd way. Then in the 1950s, a cure for the disease was found. Spinalonga abandoned as sufferers were released back to their homes. Just like that. The island still stands, boasting of the ruins of an empty leprosy colony.
Today, leprosy still exists. Especially in poorer countries with unsanitary living conditions and little access to the medicines to cure it once infected. But there is hope. Leprosy’s history of being a disease contracted as a death sentence no longer has weight.
However, even with the medicine to clear the body of the disease, any deformities or damage incurred from the disease is irrevocable. Once you have suffered from the damaged nerve endings or missing body parts, you aren’t able to recover naturally. Hence the reason, medical technology and occupational therapists are needed in countries where leprosy still thrives. The Leprosy Mission is an organization that fights to prevent, offer treatment, and recovery from leprosy. Check them out.
All of this random research about Spinalonga and leprosy made me evaluate how we see people that have experienced “deformity” as a result of addiction, age, race, culture, gender, or illness. We so often characterize and define people negatively before even knowing them. We assign to them a deformity that ostracizes and demeans their existence. Assuming they will in some way “infect” us. It’s prejudice and there should be no place for it. Let’s let the island of Spinalonga inspire us to look beyond outward appearance or society’s current opinion and get to know people before even considering making a judgement.