In Hawaii, Family Heals Scars of Leprosy

Hawaii's century-old leprosy laws tore apart families, but now they are healing.

ByABC News
January 20, 2009, 3:07 PM

Jan. 22, 2009— -- Paul Harada was a 15-year-old vocational student when he accidentally touched a scorching-hot engine exhaust. As he pulled his hand away, the burned skin stuck to the metal pipe, but the teen felt nothing.

That day in 1941 was the first sign that he had leprosy -- a now curable, but still widely misunderstood disease that, without treatment, can lead to nerve damage or other disabilities.

The first drugs to control leprosy had been discovered that same year, but they were not introduced to Hawaii until 1946. Paul, like thousands of others living in Hawaii who were diagnosed with the disease, were isolated on Kalaupapa, a remote peninsula cut off from the island of Molokai by soaring 2,000-foot cliffs and three sides of rough ocean waters.

"At the time, going to Kalaupapa was kind of like a death sentence," said Paul's brother, Taka Harada, who was only 1 when his brother was sent away under state leprosy laws that were not officially abolished until 1969.

Torn from a family of 10 siblings, Paul began an odyssey of painful separation and stigma.

Though he was cured of the disease in 1954, Paul's letters were sterilized and on his first visit home, his younger siblings were not allowed to sleep in the same house.

For 63 years, he lived at the settlement until his death from cancer in 2008. His life was enriched by the strong bonds he was able to forge with family members decades after their separation.

For once-divided families like the Haradas, restoring lost family ties has brought healing. And for Hawaiians, embracing their painful past has brought redemption.

This year, the Catholic Church will canonize Father Joseph Damien de Veuster, the Belgian missionary who lived among Hawaii's leprosy patients for 16 years. Until his death in 1889, he built houses, created a water system, nursed the living and gave proper burials to the dead.

Damien's body was removed from Kalaupapa and sent back to his home country in 1936 at the request of the Belgian government.

Until now, much of the historical research has focused on men like Damien, but today the group Ka'Ohana O Kalaupapa 'Ohana is giving a voice to the 8,000 patients who, though ostracized, led heroic lives in this loving and cohesive community.

"Society depicts these folks as recipients of charity in history, but they were active participants in many ways," said Anwei Law, a founding member of the 'Ohana.

"They gave money to causes and reached out beyond their own situations to help others," she told "Those with the disease and those who assisted under an unimaginably difficult situation, created a community that has inspired the world."

Today, Taka Harada works with the 'Ohana, which means "family," advocating for the rights of those with leprosy and helping families find lost relatives.