One day in 2002 Fu Pochu, an energetic and determined retiree from Hong Kong, decided to take on a very special mission -- she would go to live in a leper colony in Guangdong Province, not far from her hometown, and offer free care to the people living there. That momentous decision has brought balm to the wounds and the hearts of hundreds of lepers in southern China.
Fu is the only nurse at Tanshan Leper Rehabilitation Village in Gaoming District of Foshan City. She has devoted three years of her life to improving medical care in the village and helping patients who have been cured of the disease to live a more normal life.
In the past, people diagnosed with the terrible disease were banished from their villages and forced to live in isolation.
Thanks to Fu's efforts, ordinary people's fears about the rehabvillage are melting away. People from all walks of life are showing greater understanding of the lepers and aid is pouring in.
LEPER SITUATION IN CHINA
Leprosy has officially been eradicated in China.
Once incurable, leprosy can be easily cured with a six to 12-month multi-therapy antibiotic treatment introduced in 1982. However, pockets of infection still remain in impoverished parts of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou and Tibet in the west.
The disease used to be so feared in China that victims were burnt or buried alive. From the 1950s, sufferers were exiled to far-flung places so they would have no contact with the public. China stopped institutionalizing leprosy sufferers in the 1980s, but hundreds of leper colonies remain.
They are home to about 200,000 recovered lepers and their descendants, who have little or no hope of ever rejoining societybecause of the stigma attached to the disease. No longer infectious, the recovered lepers still bear the scars of the disease that destroys the skin, peripheral nerves and mucous membranes, resulting in the loss of fingers, toes and limbs and damage to eyes.
Many lepers are so cut off from the rest of the world that lifein the colonies is more comparable to China half a century ago than now.
Fu Pochu used to work as a nurse at Nam Lang Hospital in Hong Kong. After a leg injury, she was given artificial hipbones in an operation and decided to retire in 1997.
Fu's first experience of leprosy came in a leper village in Panyu during a 2002 tour organized by the Hong Kong Medical Mobilization corporation, a registered non-profit charitable organization in Hong Kong.
Fu observed that people diagnosed with the disease were shunnedby society to the point that even their relatives abandoned them.
"Leprosy runs deep: it's not so difficult to cure the ulcers, but the wounds to the heart take a long time to heal," said Fu.
To her astonishment, none of the 30 or so leper villages she visited in Guangdong in 2002 had nurses. So she decided to settle down in Tanshan Leper Rehabilitation Village where 102 leprosy patients live and where conditions are believed to be the poorest.Most of the villagers here are senior citizens.
There is one hospital in the village and Fu is the only nurse. A Christian, she tends the lepers' ulcers and, marvel of marvels, treats them as normal people.
She has organized entertainment activities at festive occasionssuch as mid-Autumn Festival and Christmas and distributed souvenirs bought in Hong Kong. In November, she took a group of 29older patients -- more than 70 years old -- but who were able to walk around by themselves to a safari park in town.
"I am here to treat their wounded hearts as well as their ulcers," said Fu, who spends four months a year in the leper village. "It is necessary for us to give them more care and warmthso that they can feel human compassion before they die."
SHE IS GOOD TO EVERYONE
Ren Changming, who was sent to live in Tanshan Rehab Village in1967, is in high spirits because the long-running ulcers on his legs have healed.
"The ulcers would never heal properly in the old days when there was no nurse -- I was not good at tending the sores," said Ren. "Fu has tended my ulcers for two years and now I am fully recovered."
Wu Nianhao, a cured leper, who came to live in Tanshan Leprosy Rehab Village in 1958, has never had visits from her siblings since her father died.
"Last time, when I fell ill and went to the local hospital, Nurse Fu accompanied me to the hospital and cooked meals for me," said Wu. "Fu treats me better than my siblings and what's more important is that she is good to everyone."
Wu still has a vivid memory of her once-in-a-lifetime visit to the safari park. "We saw elephants do shows and tigers jump through rings of fire," said the old lady excitedly.
Ou Shifen, another recovered leprosy patient in the village, said the happiest moment in her life was eating in a restaurant just like an ordinary citizen.
"Nurse Fu has never looked down on us and often invites us to have meals or tea at restaurants," said Ou.
Fu's devotion has not only moved medical doctors working with the village hospital but also dispelled the phobia felt by healthy residents from nearby villages toward the leper colony.
Dwellers from Tanshan Leper Rehab Village are now able to chat with healthy villagers from other villages and are no longer turned away when they want to buy things from the farmers' market in the vicinity.
After Fu's story became known to the outside world, more and more people from other parts of the country have visited Tanshan Leper Rehab Village, pouring in aid and donations.
Fu, now 60 and unmarried, has led a simple life. She never uses cosmetics or wears jewellery. She shuns air conditioners and instead uses two electric fans during summer time, according to Luo Youzhi, president of the Tanshan Leper Rehab Village hospital.
"I don't want there to be too big a difference between me and the villagers from the leper colony, who don't use air conditioners," said Fu.
Leaving her mother in the care of her younger sister in Hong Kong, Fu has helped raise money and materials equivalent to 100,000 yuan (about US$12,500) for the village she has served for the past three years.
Conditions at Tanshan Leper Rehab Village are improving. Government-subsidized housing has been built. Construction has started on a cement road linking the village to the outside world.
However, Fu's health is not that good. In addition to back pain and the artificial hipbone implant, Fu had brain surgery in 2003 and had a pacemaker implanted in 2004.
Fu said what worried her most was the difficulty of finding nurses who are willing to tend to the needs of the lepers in the village on a long-term basis.
"There are many people who come to offer help but they are only willing to stay for a short period of time," said Fu, "I hope more nurses will come to replace me because one day I will be too old to move around. We need people to take care of the leprosy patients."
"I am a candle, I want to brighten up the hearts of as many lepers as I can before I finish my work here," said Fu, who said she intends to take care of another leper colony in Zhaoqing, where conditions are worse than in Tanshan.
As the New Year begins, the candle burns brightly.
(Xinhua News Agency January 2, 2007)