Love in the Time of Leprosy

The life after death of José and Magdalena Ramirez

Other patients advised José to give up on his dream of marrying Magdalena. They would see her and tell him it wasn't going to be long until she was gone. He should make a new life in Carville and find a woman from there to marry.
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But José broke part of the pattern — he believed people could come and go from Carville without leaving their lives forever.

It wasn't easy, to say the least, and there were times when José almost gave up, not just on a life with Magdalena, but on life, period. Early in his stay, thoughts of the life he had left behind, with all its loose ends and obligations he couldn't meet, sent him spiraling into the abyss. His depression reached its peak when his father lost his job and Magdalena's mother was most vehemently opposed to their marriage.

José had a plan to commit ­suicide, but the other residents saw that, and pulled him through.

Over the years, Carville residents had developed ways of coping — some healthier than others. Romances blossomed among the patients, some of whom shared cottages in a purpose-built married housing section. Surrogate families formed — siblings and parents and children adopted each other.

José himself was "adopted" by Mary Ruth and Darryl Broussard. In her old life, Mary Ruth had been a Mexican-American beauty from San Antonio, while Broussard, a Cajun from Lafayette, had once dreamed of playing football for LSU and becoming governor of Louisiana. The Broussards fed José and treated him as their own, and helped him walk the straight and narrow as much as possible.

Which was hard. In some ways, Carville had less in common with a hospital than with a small town, and as in all small towns, boredom can breed mischief. Some residents succumbed to chronic drug and alcohol abuse; others indulged moderately, and their capers helped José cope.

One night a group of male patients who called themselves the Super 23s (their name came from their dorm number) introduced José to the seamy underbelly of mellow Carville vice. They took him through a hole that had been dug under a 12-foot cyclone fence around the hospital's perimeter. Patients would use it to go to town or down the road to go drinking or look for a woman.

Or to a place that was all their own, a ramshackle vision straight out of the pages of Mark Twain. Down on the banks of the mile-wide Mississippi, Carville inmates had built a ­rainbow-colored, driftwood shack they called "the Ponderosa." Outside, there was a vegetable garden, within which a more exotic crop was concealed: weed. Despite the fact that possession of a single joint could then draw a long sentence in Angola, the local parish sheriff looked the other way. (Eventually the state police took over the beat and strongly encouraged the patients to "stop growing exotic vegetables," so the Ponderosa's glory days came to an end.)

José also learned to harness his sense of justice. When admitted, he was the youngest patient in Carville, and despite his law-abiding, blue-collar background, some of his actions were in concert with the 1960s youth movement. He wasn't a supporter of "longhair" hippies, but he did share their passion for fighting injustices.

While kids at Columbia and countless other colleges were taking over administration buildings and publishing lists of demands, José was violating the prohibition against patients swimming in the staff-only swimming pool. (There was no risk of contagion — the pool was segregated merely because of taboo, which existed even at Carville, where the disease was understood best.) While he escaped notice for that episode, other incidences of his rule-­breaking had more dramatic consequences.

Parishioners at Carville's Catholic chapel were segregated — staff sat on one side, patients on the other. Staff got communion from one chalice, the patients from another. José felt this violated the spirit of the sacred phrase. "Holy Communion translates to 'united community.' It was not a united community except in words. It was not in actual practice."

So José decided to change that. One Sunday he sat on the other side. As people elbowed him and told him he was in the wrong place, José went to the altar and kneeled before the priest. He got communion out of the staff chalice and felt it was a victory.

Or so he thought. His mother was too ­tradition-bound to be pleased by her son's defiance of church rules. And many of the people in Carville felt much the same way. For months, the staff and many of the residents wouldn't speak to him because he had broken the status quo. He no longer saw it as a victory.
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While José's academic career stalled for a time, Magdalena graduated from ­Laredo Junior College and enrolled at Texas Woman's University in Denton. José would raid his piggy bank to bring her to Carville on breaks. There, they would walk the grounds, shoot pool, fly kites and make future plans. These always centered around José getting back into school, but Louisiana State University had never admitted a Carville inpatient (or staff member) before. That didn't stop José.

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