Heart of Louisiana: Carville Family
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - For much of the last century, people who were diagnosed with Leprosy or Hansen’s disease were required to stay at a hospital in Carville, Louisiana. That is also where a cure was found for the disease.
Starting in the 1890s through most of the 20th century, a person diagnosed with Leprosy was sent to Carville. The former plantation site along the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge was a federal treatment center.
“My grandmother died in October 1934,” said Anne Harmon Brett.
Anne Harmon Brett had seven relatives diagnosed with the disease who were all forced to live at Carville.
“She was patient 875,” Brett said.
This is where her parents met.
“They did not want patients to date or even marry each other, and my dad said that’s not gonna happen. He waited 16 years to marry her,” Brett said.
Newlyweds Johnny and Anne Harmon had two children, baby Anne, and an older brother.
“Children were not allowed, especially babies. So my dad talked to this family in Vacherie and she said that she would take my brother in, and then a year later I was born. The same thing happened so my mother could not touch us for over a year,” Brett said.
Johnny Harmon was a photographer and avid writer. Anne has turned her father’s memoirs of Carville into a book she titled the disease, most of us would call it Leprosy, you call it the disease, why is that?
“In our home, the word Leprosy or Leper was never used, it was always called the disease. They never used those words in our house because of the stigma,” Brett said.
While her parents were living at Carville, treatments were discovered that cured them of their disease, and they were eventually released. But the Harmons and their two children never lived together. Why weren’t they as parents ever reconnected with you as children and live and be raised by them?
“They were afraid of us getting the disease. They know nobody knows how you get this. It’s one of the most mysterious diseases and they were just really afraid that their children may get it,” Brett said.
In her father’s book, Johnny Harmon wrote about a special community that developed among the patients.
“Daddy said it was like living in a country club where the dues were really high. He said everybody has a cross, some people’s crosses are bigger than others, and he said his cross was Leprosy. He said that he lived a better life, a more interesting life when he was a patient here,” Brett said.
There are still about 200 diagnosed cases of Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease each year in the U.S., but the pioneering treatments developed at Carville have produced a cure, and victims are no longer forced to live in isolation.
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