‘It was a terrible time’: Leprosy survivor relives his horrifying years in Kalaupapa
When Hilo resident Stanley Martin was 13 years old, he was diagnosed with leprosy, taken away from his mother, and transferred to Molokai where he would be cut off from the outside world until he turned 25.
Martin, now 83, said his life completely changed when a small red dot appeared on his face.
“I had a small red spot on my cheek,” he said while pointing to the right side of his face. “My mother took me to the doctor. Another doctor comes in, then my mother, and I saw tears coming through my mother’s eyes. My father died in Kalaupapa, he had the same disease. My mother saw that and she just cried and I didn’t know what she was crying for. I’m only 13 years old. So when we went home, three days later she stops in and tells me that I have to stay in the hospital. I said, ‘Hospital? But I’m OK.’”
Distressed and confused, Martin said his mother took him to a fenced-in hospital in Honolulu, where he lived at the time with his mother and multiple siblings.
“It was like a prison. It was a prison. My mother kissed me goodbye and I said, ‘Where you going ma?’ And she said, ‘I have to leave you here.’ I said, ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because you’re sick and you have to stay.’
“I didn’t understand when they took me inside. They locked the doors, my mother went and I’m crying, and then they take me into the infirmary. They gave me all kinds of tests and I didn’t know what’s happening,” he said.
From there he learned from other patients what his future would be.
“They said, ‘You better watch out. Pretty soon they’re going to give you a letter,’” he said. “I didn’t know what they were talking about. They said, ‘You’re going to find out, and if you get a letter then that’s it. They’re going to ship you to Molokai.’”
A month later, a letter arrived at his door telling him he was leaving the next day.
“Already I don’t know what to do. I’m crying. My mother wasn’t there. They take us out to the pier in Honolulu, 15 or 17 of us on a sanpan and from that we sailed to Molokai. And everybody was sick, puking and everything. The nurse accompanying us was the most sick and we had to take care of her. It was a terrible time.”
When the boat arrived to Molokai, Martin said they waited in the water for another small vessel to bring him and the other leper patients to what would soon become their new home.
When they landed on shore, Martin was taken to his room that he shared with another patient before having a dinner experience he’d never forget.
“When I sat at that table I was so scared. They put me on the table. The people had such bad, advanced cases of leprosy they lost part of their ear,” he said. “They have no nose, no fingers, all stubs, and they’re just drooling and everything coming out. I couldn’t eat, you know. I got so scared, like, ‘What’s happening?’”
And that was just the beginning. Six months later, his roommate ended up dying of tuberculosis and death would soon become an everyday occurrence for the young Martin.
“Everyday the church bell rang,” he said. “Everyday we heard the church bell ring and we’d ask, ‘Who died?’ They would say, ‘So and so died,’ and it’s like, ‘Ah, I just saw them yesterday.’ People were dying like flies.”
But death wasn’t the only traumatizing part of Martin’s experience at Kalaupapa.
“I really wanted to go home because everybody was picking on me because I was the only white boy. Everyone else was Hawaiian or Hawaiian-Japanese, Hawaiian-Chinese or just Japanese. I was just one little boy by myself,” he said.
Martin, although a proud Portuguese, couldn’t hide from the color of his skin.
“I started to get picked on everyday. People wanted to fight me. A rumor started that I knew how to lick sailors. Someone was spreading rumors around about me that I would fight anybody, which was untrue. I never said nothing,” he said. “I was an outcast among outcasts.”
His darkest day came when he learned an ulcer had formed inside his throat and that death would be knocking on his doorstep.
“They told me, ‘Write a letter to your mother, and get ready because you’re going to die. You only have a couple weeks to live,’” he said. “I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t tell my mother. Every time I wrote to my mother I said I was OK.”
Martin said he had a near-death experience while the doctor was looking after him.
“I had a see-the-light moment,” he said. “I saw the light and I felt like I was in this bubble going into the sky. It was a very peaceful feeling. Very warm, and I was headed up to the stars. But I didn’t want to go.”
Martin’s ability to pull through surprised even his doctor, he said. It’s that kind of willpower that he swears can get you through almost anything.
“You have to have a strong mind. Believe in yourself, and don’t believe what anyone else tells you,” he said. “Some people said you cannot get out. You’re going to die. So your mind has got to be strong. ...
“I had it in my mind when I arrived that I would get out of there someday,” he said.
That day didn’t come until he was 25, six years after he was cured of the disease after taking a new form of medication.
“Some people died from taking it, but I took a chance. Me and two others tried it. We were the guinea pigs. One guy died, other guy got so sick he stopped taking it. I kept taking it and it worked,” he said.
Although leaving Kalaupapa had always been Martin’s desire, he soon realized that life on the outside wasn’t so easy.
“I was institutionalized. I didn’t know what to do, where to go,” he said.
But eventually he paved a new path, working different jobs, meeting new people, and building a new life for himself.
For years Martin said he’s kept his story a secret, fearful of other people’s reactions. Now he’s considering writing a book, and is ready to reveal to others his painful experience.
“I feel free now,” he said.
When asked how his situation molded him as a person, Martin took a moment to think about his answer before offering a simple reply.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I went in as a small boy, came out a man.”
Email Megan Moseley at mmoseley@hawaiitribune- herald.com.
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