She approached me hesitantly, hands trembling and eyes down cast. She needed to talk. “Sit with me,” I said, feeling her panic, as I patted the cushion beside me.
The small town was Puerto Armuelles, a banana planation built by Chiquita Banana, surrounded by banana plants and a port to ship the produce to the United States.
We sat in a living room with wall to wall windows that gave view to the outside world of palm trees, tropical flowers, and the beach in the near distance. But Maria did not see the beauty as she forced herself to voice the words that refused to be left unsaid.
“Señora,” she began, “Tengo la lepra”
For a second the world stood still. Leprosy: what did that mean to her? And what did it mean to me as her employer, as she was a close part of my family’s life, especially that of my three small children.
I had noticed the red growth/rash areas on her face and lower arms but never questioned it. The rest of Maria's body was always hidden under her clothes.
Listening, I learned Maria’s story. She and her two children had contracted leprosy from her ex-husband. She had known for a while but had just been to the public hospital to have it confirmed. Until her employment by us, she did not have the means to pay for a doctor’s visit, nor money to pay for the medication.
Her fears in telling me weighted heavy on her heart. I was her friend and she felt she owed me her honesty. Yet in ‘coming out’ she faced losing her job, the possibility of not finding other employment, and the stigma of being a ‘leper’ and rejected by others. Although leprosy is not that easy to get and very easy to cure, there is still fear.
We cried, we hugged, and I prayed for Maria and her family. I assured her that her job was safe. If I could have touched her and healed her, as Jesus healed the leper, I would have instantly done so.