A German doctor of tremendous resolve has made leprosy the focus of her life.
I had long wanted to sit down and have a conversation with Dr. Romana Drabik, ever since I became aware of her more than 30-year involvement with leprosy and her knowledge of the disease in the post-Soviet states. Learning that she was to be in India last November, when I would also be there, we arranged to meet.
It was 10.30 on a Sunday morning, and the lobby of the hotel in Mumbai was crowded. But it wasn't difficult to pick out Dr. Drabik, a petite figure dressed all in white. For the next five hours, we talked about her three decades of leprosy work.
I say "work," but Dr. Drabik had until recently a full-time job running a doctor's surgery in her home town of Dinslaken, Germany. Her engagement with leprosy is more by way of a personal mission, conducted with professional dedication, unwavering resolve and exemplary humanity.
|A fund-raising march in Dinslaken, Germany.|
It was the sight of people affected by leprosy begging on a street in Nairobi, Kenya in 1976 - her first encounter with the disease - that decided Dr. Drabik on how she would henceforth lead her life, both as a doctor and as a human being. A conscientious physician filled with a sense of justice and tremendous "get-up-and-go," the experience left her shocked and determined to act.
She and her husband returned to Africa several more times on holiday, always seeking out people with leprosy and looking to learn more about the disease. Back home, she also made contact with leprosy organizations. As she became more deeply committed, she told her husband, "I'm going to deal with leprosy." Discovering that India had the most cases of the disease, she made it her next destination, participating in a number of projects there during the 1980s.
|Dr. Drabik during a visit to Tajikistan's Hanaka Leprosarium in 2006|
A chance meeting on a beach in Tamil Nadu with visiting physicians from Latvia, then part of the Soviet Union, would lead Dr. Drabik in a new direction come the dissolution of the USSR. There was little information available about leprosy in the 15 former Soviet republics and she made it her business to find out - establishing personal contacts with doctors and patients, researching the situation on the ground, arranging for needed supplies and promoting scientific exchanges.
Starting in the 1990s, she made the first of numerous journeys across the former USSR, accompanied as ever by her husband (a chemist) and sometimes by her teenage son, who is now a doctor. Traveling at her own expense, but taking drugs, medical equipment and other supplies paid for by fund-raising back home, she covered vast distances to visit out-of-the-way leprosaria in more than a dozen countries.
It wasn't easy going. She battled customs officials in Ukraine, who held up the medical supplies she brought with her. She braved dangerous roads in Armenia and a tense political situation in Tajikistan. In Turkmenistan she was shocked at the level of stigma, where even a doctor's colleagues shunned him because he worked with leprosy patients. But in the different countries she visited, she also encountered affection from patients and doctors - who were touched and astonished in equal measure that she had come to see them.
Now 75, she tells me during our conversation that the leprosy doctors she has befriended in Russia and elsewhere "are like family to me." She has invited many of them to her home in Dinslaken. Her approach is both professional and personal, which is reflected in her attitude to sanitarium residents as well. In the photos she shows me, Dr. Drabik is always right in among people affected by leprosy.
There is no doubt that her inner warmth communicates itself to everyone she meets. In recounting her experiences she says people often tell her, "Romana, you must come back!" After spending five hours in her company, I can see why.
Kay Yamaguchi is Trustee of the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation.