After the death of her oldest daughter, Rebecca Douglas learned her daughter’s love was reaching far beyond her home — half way around the world, in fact.
Douglas discovered her just deceased daughter had been donating her own money to children in India, and decided to follow her lead. She became a founder of Rising Star Outreach, and organization dedicated to eradicating leprosy and helping those afflicted by it.
This summer, nursing students, along with the assistance of Cheryl Corbett and Karen Lundberg, current BYU College of Nursing faculty members, worked with Rising Star Outreach in India to break the curse that those with leprosy have to endure.
Coming across a leper on the side of the road begging for subsistence was the tipping point for Douglas, and she said she knew then that she needed to act.
Leprosy affects millions in India. The debilitating disease has several physical characteristics, but it is the social stigmas that perpetuate the disease.
“In India leprosy is seen as a curse,” said Dani Shurtleff, Rising Star Outreach volunteer director and BYU graduate. “[Lepers] are seen as not really humans, less then dogs.”
Leprosy colonies are not a thing of the past. Millions of lepers in India live in leper colonies and are destined to live a life of begging and pain. Lepers and their children typically have almost no options to triumph in life. Because those affected by leprosy are shunned from society and seen as cursed, Shurtleff said children of lepers experience the same discrimination, even if they are not infected.
“The children of lepers are not accepted into schools or government programs, therefore they cannot get jobs and find normal lives in India,” Shurtleff said. “Those little ones are our main focus.”
Waking up in the mornings and getting ready to visit the markets to beg for money is a reality most lepers in India see as regular life. And although leprosy is already a distinguishable disease, many inflict damage to themselves in order to enhance their chances to receive charity.
“They sometimes make themselves look worse,” Shurtleff said. “They burn their already damaged hands to get more sympathy and money when begging on the streets.”
Lundberg explained leprosy is tragic yet treatable, and those affected can be completely cured.
“The medicines to treat leprosy are free,” Lundberg said. “The real issue is the access. [Lepers] would have to live near a clinic for six months in order to receive the full treatment … that’s impossible for many.”
Although the main goal for the nursing students to visit India was to treat lepers, they found their assistance encompassed other areas where their efforts would be just as appreciated.
“When we got to one of the clinics we were ready to heal lepers, but that’s not what we did for the first two days,” Corbett said. “We used crude tools to cut brush down for two days. That’s when we took the opportunity to teach our students that nurses do whatever they need to do to help their patients and those in need.”
Corbett went on to say the experience was an eye-opener and helped her feel grateful.
“Here I was thinking how hot it was and how trivial the work may seem to our students, when we realized that the person next to us had no toes or fingers and he was not complaining, but working as hard as he could,” Corbett said.
For more information visit risingstaroutreach.org.