Open sores, exposed bones, missing fingers… In the 1990s, when journalists discovered the leper colony in Tichileşti in the eastern Romanian county of Tulcea, they barely had words to describe the horror of an institution whose existence had long been hidden by state authorities. Twenty years later, much has changed: mainly thanks to one man who devoted his medical knowledge and his remarkable communication skills to make Tichileşti an idyllic hospice for patients suffering from a disease that was long believed to be incurable.
When he first arrived in Tichileşti in 1991, Răzvan Vasiliu had never seen a leper outside of the pages of a book. At the time, there were 61 people at the colony, which today is home to 19 residents. Now aged 53, Vasiliu has become Romania’s only expert on the disease.
Until recently, the lepers were isolated
Initially a monastery, which provided care for leprosy victims on an informal basis, Tichileşti was granted official status only to see it revoked again shortly afterwards. "The leper colony that was officially founded in 1900 was dismantled by the Bulgarians who took over the region of Dobruja. In 1924, the renowned Romanian journalist Brunea Fox published a shocking feature report entitled "Five days among the lepers," which alerted authorities and civil society to the plight of the settlement. When the survivors were finally carted back to the colony on an August night in 1928, there were 180 of them," recounts Răzvan Vasiliu.
"Until 1990, leprosy was a taboo subject for the authorities, but the patients were well looked after," remarks the doctor. "They had already been given up for dead, and no one was to know about it. As for myself, I have always treated the patients like human beings. At times they fight with each other and their quarrels have to be resolved. The last time that happened, the argument was over whether they would watch a series or a match on television. I listened to both sides, and finally decided just to give them my TV," he remarks, smiling.
The doctor occupies one of the houses in the "residential settlement" built over 60 years ago, staying there five days a week for a monthly salary of 2,600 lei or 650 euros per month. He is also one of only a handful of doctors in Romania who does not benefit from bribes. The leprosy patients receive 80 bani (20 euro cents) per day of government benefit. Officially, the doctor is the leader of the settlement, although the patients are also represented by a "mayor".
Until recently, the lepers were isolated for aesthetic reasons or because it was erroneously assumed to be necessary. Today all of the residents in the Tichileşti hospital can request permission to leave the settlement. However, most of them are elderly, without family, and unable to live alone. Apart from that, they do also tend to lose bits and pieces of themselves…
"Leprosy is a great lady"
Hima Dumitru, an 83-year-old Baptist Ukranian who hails from Chilia Veche, is one of the linchpins of the settlement and its oldest resident. She was a young girl when she was diagnosed with leprosy 65 years ago. Ever since, she has lived in a little house on a low hill overlooking the valley. "After the war, the man whose statue you saw [in the courtyard of the hospital there is a bust of Dr Alexandru Filipeanu who worked there from 1938 to 1959] gave me pills. I was covered in red lepromas, but after three years of treatment, they all disappeared. I could have left then, but I fell in love with a young orphan, and I married her father." Then, before returning to read her Bible, she announces: "Leprosy is a great lady."
In association with the county government of Tulcea, Dr Vasiliu has founded a retirement home within the leprosy hospital complex. "It is now the most modern in the region, and we are looking after 30 elderly people. We want to put an end to our isolation. One day, Tichileşti could become a geriatric hospital or a palliative care home..." remarks the doctor with a wistful look in his eyes.