Pontiff blesses lepers during visit to shrine Health compound is Cuba's sole refuge for victims of the degenerative disease

January 25, 1998|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RINCON, Cuba -- Pope John Paul II came here last night, to the Shrine of St. Lazarus, to encounter Cuba's "world of pain."

The sick and lame come here every day, seeking healing through the intercession of St. Lazarus.

Adjacent to the shrine, which is filled with tens of thousands of pilgrims on the saint's Dec. 16 feast day, sits the Hospital of Rincon, filled with lepers, victims of an affliction that the Bible treated as the most pathetic of diseases.

The hospital, which has nearly 200 patients, has continued its mission since it was founded in 1714.

"This is the oldest health institution in Cuba, and it is the only institution for treating leprosy in the country," said hospital director Dr. Matilde Alvarez Perez, as she sat behind a metal desk smoking a cigarette in her tiny office.

Alvarez was wearing a small button welcoming Pope John Paul on her white physician's coat. The pope met patients of the hospital during last night's ceremony.

The patients live in a compound of 12 one-story buildings, which include medical facilities, a pharmacy, shoe store and a laundry. The majority of the patients are older people and will probably spend the rest of their lives here.

"They got sick in an era when treatment was not as effective and have suffered from various incapacities that were caused by the disease," Alvarez said. "Most are 50 or 60 years old. There are some patients here 70 years old who have been sick for 40 years."

In front of the church building sits an old chamura tree, its branches providing shade from the hot tropical sun, that is a symbol of treatments of the past that did not work. An oil extracted from the seed of the tree was used to treat lepers. "It was one of the first treatments they used," Alvarez said. "But it was not effective."

Leprosy is a chronic disease of tropical and subtropical regions that is contagious through repeated contact. It deadens nerves and causes skin lesions and can lead to paralysis, gangrene and deformities.

Although the dreaded disease has been eradicated in most of the developed world, between 200 and 300 new cases of leprosy are reported each year in Cuba. Many of the new cases are concentrated in the eastern cities of Santiago de Cuba, Camaguey and Guantanamo. "We haven't been able to determine why," Alvarez said.

But a multidrug treatment recommended by the World Health Organization has proven effective at curing leprosy and rendering it noncontagious. Most cases are treated at clinics or through family doctors and do not require hospitalization.

The patients at Rincon Hospital have been eagerly awaiting the pope, said hospital worker Jose Wilson, 50, as he swept away water that had gathered in front of the church during a downpour. "They want to see him personally. They're real believers," he said.

In remarks last night to the sick at the Shrine of St. Lazarus, Pope John Paul called to mind his own illnesses that have afflicted him in recent years.

"I come as a pilgrim of truth and hope to this Shrine of St. TTC Lazarus, as one who experiences in his own flesh the meaning and value which suffering can have when it is accepted by drawing near in trust to God who is rich in mercy," he said.

After his speech, the pope placed his hands on and blessed many of the sick.

A mile or so down the road, live another group of suffering Cubans: those with AIDS, who also met the pope last night.

When acquired immune deficiency syndrome was first detected on the island, the Cuban government responded with aggressive testing. Those found to be HIV positive were forced to live in sanitariums like the one near Rincon, which has well-manicured grounds dotted with small stucco bungalows. It is surrounded by a high chain-link fence, and there is a guard at the entrance.

Now, most patients are allowed to leave after a stay of some weeks, but many choose to remain because their expenses are covered by the government.

Because of the pope's impending visit, those pilgrims who arrived yesterday morning, hoping to pray for St. Lazarus' intercession, found a locked wrought iron gate.

Pura Causa Castillo, 69, said she always comes to the shrine when she visits Havana from her home in Guantanamo. She didn't seem distressed to find the shrine closed. She simply stood at the gate, silently mouthing prayers and rubbing the swollen knee that afflicts her.

"Some say it's arthritis. Others say its water on the knee," she said. "It's been three years since I've been suffering from this. The pain just won't leave me."

She finished her prayers and made the sign of the cross.

"He knows I came here," she said, turning to leave.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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