It’s about an hour ride from Saigon to Ben San, one of several leprosy centers in Vietnam. On the way, I chat with Dr. Hai, the current director of the center, and learn an interesting fact. I ask questions about the patients, and he corrects me. “Actually, we don’t have any leprosy patients here. We call them ex-patients.” The bacterial skin disease was totally wiped out here more than ten years ago he goes on to explain to me. Yet, referring to those in his care as such is both a correct statement, and a misnomer at the same time. Yes, leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is treatable and with antibiotics and other treatments can and has been eradicated. But its effects, both physical and social, last a lifetime. Not different from any other countries where it claims victims, lepers in Vietnam are essentially cast from their homes and from society, generally never to return. Ben San is both a hospital to treat those with lingering effects, and a sprawling ground, with private homes, where those who are well enough, live with their families in a safer and more comfortable environment than living at large outside its gates.
These images were made on my first visit to the center, after a very warm welcome from Dr. Hai and his associates. I have intentions to bring this as a larger scale multimedia project, and hope to return in a few weeks to continue. Below are a few of the scenes I captured over a day of visiting the residents and staff, who also couldn’t have been more open to being photographed.
One of several women who share a residence on the grounds of Ben San.
The grounds cover quite a large area, so staff move about on bicycles to check on those living on the property.
The vast majority of the ex-patients are quite elderly, and require many kinds of care. I met several residents who have called Ben San home for more than three and four decades.
Leprosy can take hold in many parts of the body. Hands and feet are common and obvious afflictions, as well as loss of the ability to blink one’s eyes, which causes dryness and loss of protection from debris. Sunglasses must be worn at nearly all times of the day for some.
Passing the days with entertainment is an ongoing challenge for many, who have resided here for many years.
Those with wounds on their feet must have them cleaned and attended to several times a day. Just as with the hands, it’s a tightening of the internal nerves that ‘retract’ the fingers and toes. They don’t fall off, as many tend to think.
For those with foot lesions and some mobility remaining, special shoes must be worn, which are custom crafted on site.
The center also supports a mental health ward, for those with both leprotic and mental illnesses. Patients in this ward are allowed a lesser degree of freedom as it were, mostly confined to small, cell-like rooms, but are still encouraged to help each other whenever possible.
Dominos seemed to be a favorite pastime of both residents and staff. Even without extremities, they manage the pieces quite well.
Also attacked can be the cartilage of the nose, which causes its eventual collapse.
In the mental ward, a very elderly man is restrained to his bed in a small room. Though it’s not the most humane of tactics, the minimal staff find it necessary for those with predilections for movement, as they could injure themselves with unnoticed movements.
A woman helps both fellow residents and staff with the set up and clean up of items needed for meals.
To be fair, most of the residents whom I was able to speak with were incredibly friendly and full of energy, but this man, upon seeing my camera, struck a pose which seems to encompass what he still has inside, and is pretty unforgetable.
As many are essentially immobile, bed sores must be treated on a daily basis.
Religion is also an outlet for many, with a Catholic church on the grounds. Here, a woman reads the bible in Chinese.
A staff member finds a few moments of solitude and solace in the cathedral.
Those with some remaining independence often spend their days taking care of others and helping the staff wherever possible.
That’s it for now. There are a few more images in the archived gallery, and continuations of the project will hopefully come to fruition soon.