Italian Catholic missionary Giovanni Petrin is more like a friend than a director to residents of the nursing home he established and has run in Ilan for several decades.
Every day Petrin, 75, who has been in Taiwan for more than 50 years, checks each of the approximately 60 residents at the Wanshan Sanitarium in Ilan County’s Dongshan Township (東山), bringing a touch of humor and gaiety to cheer up his sick, weak and elderly charges.
The Wanshan Sanatarium was formerly a shelter for tuberculosis patients, but as the disease became less prevalent, it was transformed 16 years ago into a nursing home for people with Alzheimer’s and senile dementia, as well as people in a vegetative state.
Petrin, credited with taking care of more than 8,000 Taiwanese TB patients over the decades, plays with the residents, listens to them babbling, and speaks to them in Mandarin and sometimes in Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese).
He is adept at calming his charges when they become agitated and swears by the effectiveness of the candies he always carries around.
Petrin, who came to Taiwan in 1956 as a missionary and nurse at the age of 23, has been director of the Wanshan Sanitarium since 1971. The facility is a branch of St Mary’s Hospital in Ilan’s Luodong Township (羅東), which was established by the Order of St Camillus of Italy more than half a century ago.
Petrin was a compassionate and brave nurse during the early years of the sanitarium, said Chen Su-luan (陳素鑾), who was Petrin’s secretary for more than 30 years and who still works for him as an aide even after retirement.
Chen said Petrin was never afraid to come into close contact with TB patients, who sometimes threw up blood into the faces of medical personnel. He also performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on patients on several occasions, Chen said.
Over the years, Petrin has been cited several times by both the central government and the Ilan County Government for his devotion.
He was lauded as “a real Taiwanese” in 2003 by then-minister of the interior Yu Cheng-hsien (余政憲) during a ceremony to honor him and five other foreign missionaries who served at St Mary’s Hospital in Luodong and its affiliated organizations. He has also been praised as “the best Ilan citizen” by former Ilan County commissioner Liu Shou-cheng (劉守成).
Petrin’s good reputation has even reached Italy, his home country, which he has visited fewer than five times over the past 53 years. He was conferred with the prestigious Gardino Roma medal by the Italian government in 2007 for his work abroad.
Since he was awarded permanent residence in 2003, Petrin says he is now Taiwanese and that Taiwan is his home.
Despite his advanced age, Petrin for several years sought a new site to build a larger nursing home to replace the Wanshan Sanitarium, which is old and too small.
Construction at the new nursing home, in Ilan’s Sansing Township (三星) is expected to be completed this month and inaugurated in July, said Huang Jung-kuan, who will be its director.
The new facility, to be named the St Camillus Long-term Care Home, will also have a clinic manned by professionals from St Mary’s Hospital, he said.
Huang, who solicited public donations to help build the new nursing home, said payments to the builders and contractors will have to be made in installments as the donations received by the Wanshan Sanitarium have dropped by about half over the last year.