At only six years old, Simeon Augustus Peterson, also referred to as “Mr. Pete,” was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease. From then on, he lived the rest of his life cut off from the rest of the world.
Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, is a long term bacterial infection. It is a disease of the respiratory tract mucosa and peripheral nerves. Skin lesions are the most common external symptom. As the infection worsens, permanent damage to the eyes, nerves, skin and limbs is common. Sufferers often lose the ability to feel pain in the extremities and secondary infections lead to tissue loss and deformation. The disease has been known to humanity for thousands of years. Historically, Hansen’s disease was believed to be extremely contagious, and people with the illness were ostracized and isolated from regular society. To learn more about Hansen’s disease, click here.
While the disease can spread from person to person, it is not unusually contagious. However, the widespread misconception about the contagiousness of Hansen’s was why Mr. Pete lived almost all of his life in isolation. As soon as he was diagnosed, Mr. Pete was shipped off to a hospital with other infected people on St. Croix. Although his mother was permitted to visit him on a monthly basis, she was not permitted to touch him due to the fear of disease spread.
He lived at the hospital until age 23, when he was moved to another leprosy center in Carville, Louisiana. He also had to have surgery for his hands, which had been ravaged by the disease’s progress. The center held around 400 patients and was located beside the Mississippi River. While he still was confined there, the center had a strong sense of community among the patients and there were plenty of opportunities for entertainment.
As Mr. Pete was not as terribly debilitated by the disease as many others, he worked as an elevator attendant. He also helped navigate blind patients and moved those that were stuck in wheelchairs to therapy sessions and medical appointments. He became a mainstay in the community there, and often helped welcome new patients to the facility.
Hansen’s disease is now curable, and the government planned to close the leprosy center in 1999. However, Mr. Pete was one of several patients who protested the move. After all, he had no other home or personal connections and had never known life in the outside world for very long. He was eventually allowed to stay; the center was converted into the National Hanson’s Disease Museum, and Mr. Pete would greet the museum’s visitors. Mr. Pete talked to visitors and helped refute the strong stigmas and misconceptions that people still have about it.
Mr. Pete passed away on December 28th. Despite his isolation and illness, the man instead chose to make the best of his situation by helping his fellow patients and educating the public. Read the original article in npr.org.
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