Khulna (AsiaNews) - A missionary life spent at the service of lepers in Bangladesh. This is the story of Sr. Roberta Pignone, Italian doctor and missionary of the Immaculate Conception, the female congregation associated with PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions).
Ahead of the World Day of the Sick, on Sunday 11 February, she tells AsiaNews about her experience as director of the Damien Hospital in Khulna, in the south of the country. The center was opened in 1986 by the sisters with the aim of curing and preventing cases of leprosy, from 2001 those of tuberculosis, and from 2012 also those of Aids.
As a child, she says, "I never imagined becoming a nun. I felt I wanted to do something for others, and that's why I chose to study Medicine. But I just did not think about becoming a nun. Much less to live in Bangladesh. Yet this has become the country that God has chosen for me to fulfil his mission".
Reflecting on her missionary experience and vocation, Sr. Roberta says: "I had an experience with Youth and Mission [a spiritual path for young people proposed by PIME, ed.], and I was sent to Bangladesh. Here I met the Missionaries of the Immaculate and I understood that the way they gave their lives for the Lord was the one that best matched my desire to be a missionary and a doctor for the poor, for the least among us. Later, by obedience, I accepted Bangladesh as a missionary destination and hospital work. Before entering the convent I wanted to become a family doctor and work in a dispensary in the villages. Instead I am here in the city and I have welcomed this destination as a gift of the Holy Spirit. I did not choose anything but I was given the responsibility of running a hospital after just a year and a half of mission. At first I thought it too much for me. Considering all that has happened in these years, I think there is a special blessing on this hospital, which allows us to go on, albeit with great difficulties".
Sr. Roberta was born in 1971 in Monza, Italy. She jokes, "I was born the same year Bangladesh became independent. What I carry most in my heart is that after my first youthful experience in Bangladesh, I abandoned everything to be a missionary. And the Lord has kept his promise to return me to the place where I had fallen in love [with Him]. The land where it all started for me is the land where I was called to give my life for these people. We hope it will last a long time ".
She has lived in Khulna since 2011, the third most important city in the country. Its metropolitan area has about one and a half million inhabitants, mainly occupied in agriculture and in the textile industry. Many survive as casual workers and live in overcrowded slums. Sr. Roberta explains that because of this, "the risk of contagion of Hansen's disease increases exponentially".
The religious notes that in 1998, "the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that leprosy had been eradicated. But this is not the case for Bangladesh. At that time the world interest in leprosy ceased and no one showed any more interest in research, treatment and diagnosis of the disease. Ours was the only structure that continued the service for the sick throughout the country ".
Sr. Roberta continues "today we are suffering the negative effects of that decline in interest. Every year we find new cases of infection in the past and serious disabilities caused by the disease. The reason is that there has been no more patient research work for years. "
The missionary reports that since she took office in November 2012, "the cases have doubled. If before we had about 15 patients a year, from that date there were 35-36 each year ". The figure refers only to the city of Khulna and surroundings: "The number is significant because the medical literature claims that infections are more common in the countryside than in cities. Paradoxically, our experience shows us the exact opposite ".
Sr. Roberta continues that their treatment "is open to all without discrimination - Christians, Muslims and Hindus. We do not even ask what religion they belong to ". The director reports that the staff "is interreligious and consists of 35 employees - 10 people who work in the hospital and others who run in the centres where we also take care of the TBC patients- plus three nuns. Our work is mainly carried out on the territory and patients are treated in local clinics where they take medicines. Only the most serious cases are hospitalized. For example, the average weight of a tuberculosis patient is 30 kg, so we hospitalize patients to allow them to rest and eat well. But the hospitalization for tuberculosis patients is not easy: if a father is missing from home, he cannot go to work and bring food into the family. This is why we often offer home care, even bringing food or blankets for the winter. On the contrary, in cases of leprosy, hospitalization is necessary for the daily medications of ulcers and for the reactions of the immune system to drugs". In all of 2017 "we have witnessed 35 new cases of leprosy, in addition to all chronic patients who are treated at home, more than 400 TB patients".
As for "multidrug therapy, that is the combination of antibiotics whose dosage is fixed by the WHO, the medicines are supplied by the government. On the other hand, we offer all the support drugs free of charge such as vitamins, pain relievers for side effects, treatment for ulcers ". The funds of this complex assistance machine "come from Italian benefactors".
Services offered to leprosy sufferers, she continues, includes " physiotherapy, both at home and in hospital every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoon. It serves to reduce disability. But above all, since leprosy is linked to a loss of sensitivity to the periphery [ie the limbs, ed], we also produce shoes with soft soles that prevent the formation of ulcers on the soles of feet".
The nun reported that the hospital seeks "to sensitize the population on the importance of care. This is why we involve school principals, students and local doctors. However, our experience teaches us that the identification of new cases takes place through former patients, who have already experienced the effects of the disease on their own skin and advise others to undergo treatment. We give them a great responsibility: they have been cared for and we urge them to help us treat others ".
"It is the Lord who wants me here - concludes the nun - and gives me the strength to carry out this task that is much greater than me and my abilities. We are in Bangladesh, at the ends of the earth, on the border with the Bengal forest, to treat the least among us on earth, because no one cares for leprosy patients. This awareness strengthens me every day ".
Faced with the amazement "of the Bengali population, for whom it is very difficult to understand why an unmarried woman has left her homeland, it is gratifying to know that some patients consider this hospital as a second home. In our being here there is no attempt at conversion. We bring hope, a different lifestyle and help to those considered the least".
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