In the early 1900â€™s with the Americans in power, there was a fairly high incidence of leprosy in the Philippines and it was decided that all lepers would be segregated and sent of to isolation in one of several locations across the country. One leper â€œcolony,â€ a term which sounds really horrible, but was a fact of life then, was in what is now Naga, Cebu, another was in Manila and a third was established and located on the â€œIsland of No Return,â€ or Culion Island in Northern Palawan in 1906. Not too much was understood about leprosy at the time but fear of contagion meant that they separated all those already afflicted. At its peak, the Culion â€œfacilityâ€ was home to over 5,000 lepers. Today, there are less than 200 leprosy patients left in the hospital but the townâ€™s population has grown to over 20,000. Families often moved to Culion to be close to one patient (e.g. a spouse and children would move to the island to care for the sick spouse) and eventually a town formed though it was only recognized as a distinct municipality just a dozen or so years ago.
What struck me about the town and the hospital was its rich, sad, unique and well, interesting history. The island location was selected for its remoteness first and foremost. It was difficult to â€œescapeâ€ once you got there. It had arable land and people continued with as normal a life as they could manage on the island. A large hospital compound was built, an enormous church and eventually a town life also established itself. But all through this last hundred years (the town of Culion celebrated its centeniary last year), many hundreds, then thousands of people died here with leprosy and many dozens of people from doctors, nurses, priests and educators tried to make them more comfortable as they got sicker and sicker. Today there is a very interesting small museum on the premises of the Culion Sanitarium and here once gets a very interesting historical overview of the â€œcolony,â€ complete with photos, news clippings, rattan human powered â€œambulancesâ€ for transporting patients, some sample money for use only on the island as it was feared money contaminated by handling by lepers would affect the population outside of Culion, etc.
There was pretty good documentation of all the goings on in Culion because it was carefully administered and frankly, because I suspect there wasnâ€™t much else to do thereâ€¦so diaries, letters, etc. from the island painted an interesting portrait of life there. It sounds as though there was a great degree of dignity despite the desperate circumstances, or at least more than I personally would have imagined. A visit to the island is an eye opener; or at least it was for me. It certainly made one aware of the hardships others had to endure and made one ever more grateful for the life that you have todayâ€¦so much more cushy than most would ever have dreamed of. I knew someone once who was a nurse and decided to devote many years of service at a hospital in Palawan (almost certainly this Culion facility) and no one else seemed to understand why she would voluntarily stay on beyond her original commitment of a few yearsâ€¦after my own visit there I think I now understand why she did it and why acts like that are so incredibly and utterly admirable. If you are ever in Coron and have time for a moving and historical daytrip, visit the small seaside town of Culion and take in some history at the Culion Sanitarium and the impressive church just a few steps awayâ€¦