These are people I love
“For me, restoring the dignity of lepers is the essential thing. It is not enough to cure the patient’s disease, it is not enough to give them an antibiotic, to treat their wounds, lead to the rehabilitation of an arm or leg. One also has to restore their dignity precisely because it had been rejected. This Pro Dignitate Humana prize is exactly an expression of this,” Dr. Helena Pyz, a doctor who has run the Jeevodaya Leprosy Rehabilitation Centre in India for the past 27 years, tells Poland.pl.
On 15 December 2016, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski bestowed Dr. Pyz with the Pro Dignitate Humana prize, an award granted in recognition of an unwavering commitment to defend individual rights and human dignity.
Poland.pl: How did it come about that you started to work in Jeevodaya in India?
Dr. Helena Pyz: I heard about the centre at a friend’s name-day in 1986, from a Pallotine priest, who also strayed into India while driving between several Pallottine missions. He told me that there is a small enclave for people affected by leprosy called Jeevodaya, which in Sanskrit means "Dawn of Life." I was told that if the founder, Father Adam Wisniewski, dies – and he was at that stage seriously ill following cancer-related surgery – then the mission, and with it thousands of lepers, would be without medical care. This sentence had an immediate effect on me. I thought that the several thousand patients that I tend to in my GP surgery is completely incomparable to the needs that the people have over there. I also knew that an Indian doctor wouldn’t touch a leper.
It was inspirational. I made up my mind. It took a long time to get an invitation, because back then you would get your passport and visa upon receiving an invitation. And then the ticket. Polish Airlines only flew to India once a week, so one had to wait. By the time I left it was February 1989. I wanted to help the doctor, who was gravely ill. In the meantime, his life ended. So when I arrived, it turned out that I was the only doctor. There was a doctor there who was hired by the hour and paid to come twice a week, while the Jeevodaya centre was in huge debt after the founder’s death. Of course, he was a huge help for me and was my first point of call regarding medical matters there.
I had to learn many things. It is not just another type of medicine, but also another way of applying treatment. First of all, I had to learn the language so that I could communicate with both patients and staff at the centre. I also had to simply learn the names of drugs, diseases that one didn’t come across in Poland, and above all leprosy. It was a process that took some time. But responsibility for the centre very quickly fell on me. I was on a tourist visa for the first six months. I returned to Poland. When I came to India in 1990, the co-founder of the centre who had invited me, left the centre bestowing the responsibility for it on me. For the next eight years I was basically solely responsible for the centre.
How does the centre work?
The centre is completely charitable in nature. More than 90 per cent of the financial aid comes from Poland. We provide assistance, free medical advice and check-ups that can be done on the spot. We also provide free medication and bandages, if necessary. Because leprosy is also connected to the wounds. For the last 50 years, local residents have known about the existence of this centre, which gives them all of this, both treatment and medication, for free. That is why poorer patients come to us, those who cannot afford the medication. The national health system is underdeveloped and not very accessible while private doctors cost money.
Leprosy is an infectious disease that can affect anyone. Except that a rich person will be able to find a place to be treated. This is a completely curable disease since around the 1940s and in India since the 1950s. In fact, it should no longer result in exclusion. We know that antibiotics and sulfonamides, which we have, kill 99 per cent of it after the first dose.
Upon detection and initiation of treatment there is no danger even if you come in to contact with the patient and they can live peacefully in their home. Among the new cases of leprosy detected the number has decreased significantly in the past quarter of a century, since I started working in Jeevodaya. At the beginning it was more than 500 new cases per year, and now it is even less than a hundred. Last year there were probably 77 new cases of leprosy.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Incomprehension. When I am not able to communicate with the patient. When the patient doesn’t believe me that the pills can help. This lack of faith limits my activities. The point is that leprosy does not hurt, does not cause a temperature, there are only visual symptoms and risk of damage to nerves and limbs. However, very often patients do not understand this danger. I prescribe medication which they should take very systematically from six months up to two years. This routine is difficult for them. If the patient takes a break, then a resistance to the drugs develops and often complications come up. Then I'm helpless.
The hardest moments come when someone cheats me in a shameful manner, which also happens. But it is normal, large community, so there are bound to be many different problems. We have 500 inhabitants on site. Around a dozen families live there on a permanent basis, including myself and, for over ten years, also an Indian Pallottine priests, who take care of the centre from an administrative and spiritual side.
What brings you the greatest satisfaction?
The achievements made by my children and their health. And the latter isn’t always possible. On the territory of the resort there are some little graves of children, who I wasn’t able to save. I am happy when those who I was able to save, achieve something in life. When they finish school successfully, when they pursue further studies, when they succeed. I’m happy when girls marry well and the boys establish nice families. I am happy when they are able to build homes for themselves.
What relationship do you have with the people that you live with?
These are mostly children living in the dormitories, who come leper colonies from Calcutta in the east to large areas in the west, north and south. These children come to us for the ten-month long school year and return home for the holidays. There is also a group of children who are completely ours. These are children who have lost both parents or the mothers, often soon after child birth. We have over a dozen such children, especially less wanted girls, at the centre.
There are also infirm elderly people who wouldn’t be able to cope elsewhere.
I am someone important for these people. I came from a distant country. For them, I am someone who gave them my life. Already a long time ago they started calling me “Mammy”. This is a title that also obliges me to do things. I have to worry about all sorts of things that they come to me with. At the beginning it seemed to me that I was only going to perform medical duties. And now I know that they expect much more from me. Even after they finish their studies and start work, they return to receive advice on various issues. This is my home, my community. These are people I love.
How does a work day at Jeevodaya look like?
I get up before six so that I make it on time for mass, which takes place at 6.30 every day. We all participate in it, the children too. It is part of the daily programme. Then there's breakfast. Children go to school at 8:00, and I then take to my office. My morning work consists of ordering duties, spending money, accepting bills, making sure everything is up to date. In the meantime sick children keep coming for medicine and sick-notes. And so it continues until 12.00.
Twice a week we have a clinic for patients from outside the centre. There are no fixed hours. During the summer they show up much earlier, because of the heat at noon. In addition to the clinic on the site we have two off-site clinics, to which we go to once a month. Children eat lunch around 12:30 whilst I generally eat later, when I finish dealing with patients. I then have time for an after-lunch siesta.
In the afternoon, the kids come home from school. Evening prayer ends their fun and games. Then comes dinner, and after dinner I have free time. When the children go to sleep, it's quiet, and that it when I deal with correspondence. Until midnight.
Being in India, do you tell your students about Poland, do you teach them Polish?
Sometimes they ask for it, for example, how we celebrate the holidays. But many things are beyond their imagination. Even telling them that temperatures in winter go below minus 20 degrees does not mean much to them. Let me give you an example. In Indian villages, makeshift swimming pools for people and cows are popular, a clay pit, which collects the water in the rainy season and dries up in May.
An accountant at the centre asked me one day: if it’s so cold over there then the water must freeze. I said that the water does indeed freeze. And he said: so how do you bathe? The fact that every person has a bathroom and a shower or a bath is a luxury they are not familiar with.
Among people from the centre, there are already a dozen or so people who have seen Poland and my house. Eighteen people came in July for World Youth Day. It was a unique experience for them, because they saw the whole world of young people. This experience will certainly bear fruit.
Do you miss Poland? How often do you come back here?
In the last few years I have been coming every year during the children’s holidays (in the hot season temperatures where we live reach up to 50 degrees Celsjus). I also need to take care of my health. This year, for the first time in 25 years I will spend Christmas in Poland.
Do I miss Poland? I think I do not have time for this. There is so much work and so many people around me, so what am I supposed to miss. I feel equally well in Jeevodaya as in Poland.
How important is the Dignitate Humana prize to you?
For me restoring the dignity of lepers is the essential thing. Indians believe that disease is associated with some sort of blame, that it is a result of negligence, sins, shortcomings in this or a previous incarnation. A disease such as leprosy that maims, means that the person affected has no place in the community that they live in. Because leprosy is treated as a punishment of the gods, therefore patients are thrown out of the family, the village, sometimes very far away, so that family can live a normal life. No one will hire a leprosy patient with visible lesions, no one will hug him, no one will invite him over. They have to find a place for both living and for their continued existence. Most often they live from begging.
They gather in places that are called leper colonies. I know a colony, which is in a place where the river always spills over during the rainy season. No one cultivates land or lives there. Lepers live there. The rain comes, destroys this or that, they flee for the time being and later return to their wet houses. They create slums, they must have their own water supply, they have to be separated. There is no barbed wire. They isolate themselves so that they can live a normal life, so that no one has to be cast out.
They live in their own communities. I visited such camps, providing medical assistance. I saw how they live near stinking garbage dumps. I wont change their way of life, they will continue to live there, but at least their children will learn, acquire education, they will make money in other ways, and not pull out left-overs from these dumps or beg.
For me it is important that human dignity is not trampled on. And a lot depends on education. In India it is often the case that someone is not able to cope with administrative and official matters, one can treat them badly, exploit their ignorance. If our kids, our young people go home and are able to read an official letter to their parents, they will no longer be confused. Lepers often cannot read themselves or sign their name. When our students return home, they offer a different quality of life to their leprosy-affected parents. This has huge value. For me, this award is an expression of this.
The idea of the founder of the centre was that it is not enough to cure the patient’s disease, it is not enough to give him an antibiotic, treat his wounds, lead to the rehabilitation of an arm or leg. One also has to restore his dignity precisely because it had been rejected. Father Adam Wisniewski, who created the centre, had the idea to live with them. To show that I'm not afraid of them, that I accept them, that these are my brothers, I can live with them, work, and live with them.
The highest degree of rehabilitation is when they begin to work with us on their own accord. They make up the Jeevodaya team and help others. Indian society is not yet prepared for this, but some degree of integration is already taking place. For example, once we had a school just for children from the colony, who lived in our two dormitories for girls and boys. And we have now built a new school building, a large one, and there we also accept other children. First, these were the children of our employees. And now also from the surrounding villages. The school offers good quality education so parents want their children to attend it. We see that gradually a certain barrier within society is being overcome.
As part of Primate Wyszyński’s Secular Institute, you had the opportunity to meet the Primate of the Millennium. How do you remember him? What impact did his teachings have on your further life choices?
I recall the Primate as a father. We members of the secular consecrated women institute which he co-founded were important to him, we supported him with our prayers and work for the Church. We were like his daughters. He shaped us from the religious side. He was a great man. One was able to talk about everything with him, ask for advice.
I am convinced that his teachings had an impact on my life choices. I do not know if I would have had the courage to go to India, if it wasn’t for the impact of his teachings.
I remember when the Solidarity movement started, to my surprise the people entrusted me with steering the Zespół Opieki Zdrowotnej (Health Care Unit) of the Wola district committee, consisting of 2,000 members. I asked the father if I should accept the function, since I did not feel competent enough to do it. The father said that if people trust you, you must do it. When I travelled to India, the father was no longer alive. I remember my first thought then: “I wonder what father would have said”. I decided that he would have accepted my decision.