Before 1989, the Romanian community of Tichilesti was a place the world had forgotten. People knew only that it was a place for those suffering from Hansen's disease -- better known as leprosy. Bucharest's Communist regime, which associated the devastating illness with poverty, never officially recognized the Tichilesti community, preferring to keep it isolated from public view. More than a decade later, nearly two dozen leprosy patients still live in Tichilesti.
Tichilesti, Romania; November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The last case of leprosy in Romania was diagnosed 21 years ago. The chronic illness -- which, untreated, takes an irreversible toll on sufferers' skin, bones, muscles, and nerves -- has largely been eradicated in the country. Even the concept of a leprosy colony has become outdated. At the leprosy hospital in Tichilesti, Romania, contact with the 23 long-term patients has ceased to present any danger of contagion.
Most of the patients in the community are over 60. The oldest is 90 years old and the youngest is 37. Tichilesti is their only home, the place where they have spent most of their lives. Everyone has their own living space -- a small room with a bed, table, and other necessities. Many of the patients here have raised families and now have healthy children and grandchildren who left Tichilesti but have not forgotten their relatives and come back occasionally to visit.
Cristache Tatulea is 70 years old and has lived here for 54 years. He came to Tichilesti at the age of 16; at 19, he married a young woman who was also suffering from leprosy.
"We have two sons, who were born here, created out of two 'germs.' [Laughs.] And I am glad to say I have good children, and my grandchildren are good too -- they recently finished their military service. They live in my village, on the Danube, in Mahmudia. I became blind at some point, but our doctor went to the highest authorities to make it possible for me to be treated, and now I can see again with my left eye. Now I see. I can see you, and I wish you good health. God bless you."
Margarit Irimia is the oldest patient in Tichilesti. He was born in 1913.
RFE/RL asked him, "For how many years have you been here?"
Irimia: "Since 1961."
RFE/RL: "Are you alone here, at the hospital?"
Irimia: "Alone, but it's not bad. I've got children."
RFE/RL: "Do they visit you?"
Irimia: "They do. They just left, not so long ago, after a visit."
RFE/RL: "What are the conditions like here? What is your life like?"
Irimia: "Thank God, after some time, we now have good conditions. We can't complain."
All the patients say they are satisfied with the care in Tichilesti. But they add that the loneliness is difficult to bear.
RFE/RL spoke with Maria Radulescu and asked her how long she had been a patient at Tichilesti.
"Since 1954," she said. "That long."
RFE/RL: "And how has it been for you?"
Radulescu: "Well, see for yourself. This is where I've spent my entire life, my entire childhood."
RFE/RL: "Do you have any family here? A husband?
Radulescu: "No, I have nobody."
Radulescu: "Yes." RFE/RL also spoke with Maria Danes.
RFE/RL: "How many years have you been here?"
Danes: "Since 1960."
RFE/RL: "Are you alone here?"
RFE/RL: "And how do you feel here?"
Danes: "Well, the way one feels when one is hospitalized -- lonely. No one comes to see you. Relatives don't want to or they can't because they have no money, no chance to do it."
Not all Tichilesti patients feel so lonely. Serban Costica, a 76-year-old who has lost his sight to leprosy, lives with his wife, who does not suffer from the disease but has remained with him.
Ioana Miscov, a Tichilesti resident since 1941, is another example. She married here and gave birth to a daughter, Domnica, who went on to live a normal life but still visits her mother regularly. During one such visit, Domnica spoke to RFE/RL about her life:
"I was born here, 57 years ago. Until I was 13, I lived here, I spent every day here. At 13, I went to school in Tulcea. I finished school, I had a job, and now, with God's help, I am 57 and a pensioner. I come here every month to stay with my mother for 12 or 13 days, to help her."
Despite the suffering of Tichilesti's leprosy patients, life in the village is relatively normal. There are religious services in two churches, one orthodox and one baptist. And under a 33,000 euro project financed by the European Union, Tichilesti received a satellite dish and television, as well as 20 radios, 10 refrigerators, new medical equipment, and an air-conditioning system. The hospital bathroom was also refurbished.
Jonathan Scheele, the head of the European Commission Delegation to Romania, was in Tichilesti, and told RFE/RL he approved the funding as soon as he found out about the project.
"I am very happy to see that that money has been well spent. And it will improve the lives of the people living here," he said. Scheele was also pleased to accept a glass of homemade wine from Tichilesti patient Cristache Tatulea, who maintains an enviable garden and vineyard despite his ailment.
Tatulea told Scheele, "God bless you. I'm very happy that you've come to my house."
RFE/RL asked him, "Would you have thought that you would see one day an ambassador in your house?"
"No, and I am very honored to welcome an ambassador of Europe in my house," he said. "This means more than a visit by one of our deputies."
No member of parliament or any prominent Romanian politician, with the exception of local officials, has ever visited the Tichilesti hospital -- not even in election years.
The entire hospital staff consists of 28 people, only one of whom -- Razvan Vasiliu -- is a doctor. Vasiliu, who also directs the Tichilesti center, is a dermatologist who studied abroad.
He has worked in Tichilesti since 1991, taking a break only during Romania's previous legislative term, when he was the Peasant-Christian Democratic Party prefect for Tulcea county. After that, he returned to what he believes is his mission as a Christian. He says if he were once again at the start of his career, he would choose the same path.
"In this work, it was more than my own choice," he said. "I believe it was somehow the path that God wanted me to follow. And I would make the same choice again and I would follow the same path."
RFE/RL: "Do you think one needs a vocation to do this kind of work?"
Vasiliu: "I believe so."
Vasiliu's patients, reconciled to their own fates, say they have had moments of happiness in their life. None of them wants to return to the communities where they were born, and which they left dozens of years ago. For them, home is Tichilesti.
(This article was originally broadcast in November 2002.)