“Some of the doctors working here had previously served in the Japanese army … We hated the medical staff because they treated us as if our lives were worthless,” says Tang, who once saw a fellow resident die of excessive bleeding after a throat operation.
Sulfone drugs were found to be effective in the 1940s, and it was proved that leprosy was not infectious once treated. The improper administration of the correct medication Dapsone, however, came with consequences.
“The doctors didn’t know the proper dosage of the drugs and gave us no instructions on how to use them. We were given 21 pills a week, and each pill was 100 milligrams. So we took 2,100 milligrams each week. But 25 milligrams was the correct daily dosage,” Lee says. “Our bodies collapsed because the drug destroyed red blood cells. It also caused severe nerve pain.”
Lee recalls how many found the pain unbearable and committed suicide. Some consumed large quantities of Dapsone and slowly and painfully died of the complications. Others hung themselves in a corridor that faces the compound’s main gate in the hope that their souls could leave the sanatorium after death.
“Every day, people were killing themselves,” Tang says.
Little by little, residents learned to administer the proper dosages and feed themselves properly. The medical situation improved when “real” doctors started to arrive in the 1960s, says Lee.
Designed for lifelong isolation, Losheng had everything needed for a self-contained community: generators, laundry facilities, a canteen, a barbershop, a communal bath house, a library and a tile factory, as well as two churches and a Buddhist shrine designed and built in 1954 by residents.
The deep-rooted fear of leprosy as a hereditary, highly contagious and incurable disease meant that even “the patients’ ashes were not allowed to leave the sanatorium,” says Tang. Residents performed the funeral rites and the deceased were cremated in the compound’s columbarium.
Life inside Losheng was closely watched by leprosarium authorities which was given the power to arrest and punish residents without court order. Those who dared to sneak out or disobey staff members were placed in solitary confinement.
CARING FOR EACH OTHER
Humiliated and cast out, residents turned inward and learned to take care of each other. Many like Lee worked at the understaffed clinic to help fellow residents who were disfigured, partially paralyzed or suffering from nerve pain which “was so severe it caused fingers to curl overnight,” explains Tang.
Extensive nerve damage meant that they lost the ability to feel pain. Inhabitants were injured repeatedly as they didn’t flinch when they cut themselves or picked up a cup of boiling water. If not treated properly, injuries would leave them deformed or in need of amputation. Some went blind, another debilitating side effect of the disease, while others developed mental disorders.
Lan Tsai-yun (藍彩雲), a former patient who has lived in Losheng for nearly 60 years, spent most of her time in the sanatorium serving as a caregiver for the blind and the elderly.
“Back then, no one had money to hire caregivers, so those in better health took care of the less fortunate. It was a 24-hour task. I woke up, made a fire, boiled water, fed them, bathed them, changed their dressings, cleaned the house and put them to bed. I even had to pour some a glass of water because they couldn’t see,” says the 80-year-old Lan.