National Guard Preserves History Of Hansen’s Disease Center

CARVILLE, La. (AP) — A drive along Point Clair Road can feel like a journey back in time. Many of the buildings, walkways and spreading live oaks look as if they’re preserved in amber.

Gone, however, are the patients who spent the last years — often decades — of their lives there, as are the Catholic Daughters of Charity who cared for them. Replacing them are National Guard soldiers ready to respond to a crisis and at-risk youths learning discipline and job skills.

Since 1999, the Louisiana National Guard has taken over what once was the National Hansen’s Disease Center, where researchers conquered a dreaded illness. Col. John Angelloz, commander of the Guard’s Gillis W. Long Center, sees a connection between the eras.

“A miracle occurred out here and they found a rudimentary treatment for that disease,” Angelloz said. “That gave people hope and encouragement. I tell people that’s still true today. That same spirit of hope and encouragement.”

Once a sugar cane plantation, this property became home to patients in 1894. Commonly called leprosy, Hansen’s disease is a bacterial infection that damages nerves, the respiratory tract, skin and eyes. Since it can cause an inability to feel pain, unnoticed wounds often resulted in severe injuries and infection. It was once thought to be highly contagious.

Louisiana brought in the Daughters of Charity to care for patients, and they remained after the U.S. Public Health Service took over in 1921. Then called the National Leprosarium, it became an impressive campus with a hospital, dorms, Catholic and Protestant chapels, a recreation center and golf course, along with a neighborhood housing the staff. Over 2 miles of two-story covered walkways connected facilities.

Fear of the disease was strong. An incinerator was built to keep anything from escaping the property.

“No one would touch it. No one would take it,” said Kristy Yowell, safety officer at Gillis Long. “All of the refuse, the trash, mattresses, furniture, anything that came from this base, they burned right there.”

The stigma carried even to the grave. Many patients took aliases at the center, and many chose to have those assumed names on their tombstones.

“Privacy was very, very important in those days because people, if they found out you had a family member who had leprosy, you got kind of labeled,” said Col. Herb Fritts, deputy director of the Louisiana Military Department.

Starting in the 1940s, the center’s research began producing breakthroughs that led to Hansen’s disease being treated on an outpatient basis. The center relocated to Baton Rouge, and resident patients could either accept a lifetime medical stipend, move to a hospital in Baton Rouge or remain on-site. About 40 chose to remain.

As the facility emptied, it was briefly used as a minimum security federal prison before being turned over to the Louisiana National Guard in 1999. Soon after, it became site of a Louisiana Youth Challenge program, a military-style, residential opportunity for 200 to 250 at-risk adolescents to learn discipline and earn a high school equivalency diploma.

The Louisiana Job Challenge program was added to provide job skills training for about 100 Youth Challenge graduates, who also live on-site. The latter program was built on the former golf course, which was relocated and finally abandoned because it cost too much to maintain, Fritts said.

The National Guard might have needed the space anyway. When Hurricane Katrina forced the evacuation of Jackson Barracks in New Orleans, the Gillis Long Center received 50 trailers to house personnel. Those trailers remain, and housing once used for Hansen’s Disease Center staff now is used for about 200 Guard personnel, plus family members, so they can deploy quickly in an emergency.

The center is now “a major power projection platform for all hazard events,” Angelloz said. That includes the 61st Troop Command, 415th Military Intelligence Battalion and the 62nd Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Team, the latter a hazardous materials unit that is able to assess and respond to toxins present in natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

“They can do anything and be able to provide citizens awareness, response, detection, you name it,” Angelloz said. “We are lucky to have it in our state.”

That’s also his feeling about the facility as a whole. Because it was built to be self-sufficient, its power plant and sewage treatment capabilities allow it to function when regular utilities go down, Angelloz said.

Much of it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, which means the external characteristics must be maintained even as buildings are repurposed. There’s been a lot of that.

The original plantation home is the headquarters building. The former hospital is now a 71-bed hotel used mostly for Guard functions but is available for private bookings. The ballroom and theater are regularly used by Youth Challenge members, who also worship in the chapels. The old staff dining hall is the National Hansen’s Disease Museum. The only structure no longer in use is the incinerator, Yowell said.

“We take a lot of pride trying to preserve the history of this facility,” Fritts said.

Having been associated with the Gillis Long Center since the Guard took it over, Fritts got to know the patients who chose to remain and the Daughters of Charity, who continued their work there until 2005. The last resident left in 2016.

“We had the Silo, a little lounge area they liked to go to,” Fritts said. “We’d go down there and have a cold beer with them. We treated them no different. You had to educate yourself a little bit about leprosy. It’s not one of those that you can contract.”

This summer, Jose Azaharez, who was the last long-term-care patient in the National Hansen’s Disease Program was laid to rest at the center, one of about a half dozen burials since the last residents left. Such funerals provide a somber reminder of the history of the Gillis Long site. Not that its leaders need one.

“We are fully committed to preserving the legacy of this place,” Angelloz said.