The Baltic States

I was absolutely determined to look for leprosy people in the territory of the former Soviet Union.
My first starting point was the Baltic Region. In January 1990, I happened to meet the Latvian Scientist Mrs. Dace Baltsere in Madras. When talking to her, I learned that leprosy occurred in her home country and she even gave me the address of a Latvian  Leprosarium in Talsi.

Some months later, I was given the home address of the Estonian leprologist Anne Sarv by Dr. Brand from Neuötting, who was an eye specialist and dealing with leprosy patients in Nepal. I therefore had enough information to get into contact by mail.

Estonia

Leprosorium Kuuda
Leprosarium of Kuuda

In July 1992, I set off – to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - accompanied by my husband and my son. Our little van was packed with specific and general medicine as well as medical supplies and clothes.

It was our aim to analyse the situation of leprosy people in these three countries as well as the statistical investigation and medical care of the patients and also to get into contact with medical doctors in the area. After a three-day journey, we arrived in Tallinn. Thanks to a friendly and helpful police officer, we were finally able – despite several difficulties – to knock on the leprologist’s door. Although she lived alone, the whole family was waiting for us. In a friendly but at the same time rather reserved manner we were repeatedly asked one and the same question: “Which organization are your working for? Who sent you here?”
We found it very difficult to explain the motives of our leprosy work after such a tiring trip. Anne Sarv and her family could not believe that it was our own initiative to make this adventurous trip just to get into contact with leprosy people.
We spent almost one week in Tallinn. Mrs. Sarv accompanied us to the leprosy patients in the leprosarium of Kuuda, which had been founded approximately 100 years earlier. She showed us the facilities including the patients’ rooms in a very enthusiastic way. Apart from examining patients together we us, she also gave us helpful information, which was most important for our understanding of the patients’ situation in Estonia. We also paid mutual visits to some out-patients.

The sick persons concerned tried very hard to hide the symptoms of their illness. As strangers, we had to make enormous efforts to be allowed into their flats. Only by promising that we would supply them with medicine did they eventually agree to being examined.
I remember one leprosy person who agreed to show me only one leg since the other leg looked exactly the same. He had even changed his name and address in Tallinn to make sure that he did not leave a single trace on the list of leprosy people. When Dr. Sarv knocked on the door, he was desperate. “How will my neighbours react when they learn that I am suffering from leprosy?  Nobody will respect me, nobody will greet me…” He was very concerned. “How are the neighbours to know about this? The word “leprologist” is not written on my forehead!” Mrs. Sarv replied.

Gesichtsverstümmelung
facial mutilations

I also remember another patient very clearly. We knocked on the door and when she recognized Mrs. Sarv’s voice, she threw her keys out of the window so that we could come in. There were four of us. We could tell from the expression of her half-blind eyes that she was surprised and extremely worried. “Who’s that entering my flat?” she asked. Mrs. Sarv calmed her down. She talked to her gently and in a low voice. “These are friends from Germany, they are medical doctors, too and have brought medicine to help you.” We did not dare say a word. After some minutes, we were allowed into her room. One hour later, the ice was broken and we could examine the patient and dress the wounds – and even take photographs of them.

We told her about our trip and our project to care for leprosy people in Baltic countries. While I was washing my hands in her kitchen, I could sea tears in her eyes – but also gratefulness. She was smiling and wanted to say something. I could tell that she was making an enormous effort with every single word. Hesitantly, she said in German, “I am happy / Ich bin glücklich.”

2009

I am still in contact with Mrs. Anne Sarv.She has visited me in Dinslaken several times and over the last ten years, she has frequently organised exhibitions about the history of leprosy in Estonia in order to keep the public aware and alert of the problems of leprosy.
For economic reasons, the leprosarium Kuuda was closed in the year 2005.