Oral History Excerpts

Ruth Thompson
Panama

Introduction

The Oral History Project

Recovering Voices From
the Distant Past

Oral History Excerpts

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Stigma, Identity and Human Rights
Conference on Robben Island

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Terminology

Books Written by People Who
Have Had Leprosy

Contact Information

My name is Ruth Maria Passo Thompson.  I was born in Panama and I came here [Palo Seco Hospital] when I was 12 years old.  Now I’m 71.

I always suffered with ulcers in my foot that didn’t heal, and so they decided to scrape my elbow and send it to be tested.  I was living at that time in Bocas del Toro.  And they sent it to Santo Tomas hospital, and they found out that I had the disease and they brought me to Panama City.

They didn’t tell me the results, they told my mom.  They knew that that was it and that I had to come to Panama City and to Gorgas Hospital.  They didn’t tell me what I had because at 12 years I didn’t understand what was going on. They told me that I had to go to a place, and that’s all I knew about it.  I didn’t find out until I came here.  When I came here and saw all the patients, I was shocked because some were really, really sick and, of course, being a kid, I wasn’t accustomed to seeing the things that I saw.  So I was a little nervous. I was the youngest one.  Then after a few years, they brought some more kids, some even younger than I was when I came.  I think the youngest one was five years old.  A lady named Segunda Guevara took care of me when I first moved here.  The first years were the most difficult.  I wasn’t even allowed to go to the beach by myself.  I would just sit there and didn’t go anywhere.  Then when I was 14 or 15, I could live in an apartment by myself, so then I could go to the beach and go all around and things like that.

I was the youngest one.  Then after a few years, they brought some more kids, some even younger than I was when I came.  I think the youngest one was five years old.  A lady named Segunda Guevara took care of me when I first moved here.  The first years were the most difficult.  I wasn’t even allowed to go to the beach by myself.  I would just sit there and didn’t go anywhere.  Then when I was 14 or 15, I could live in an apartment by myself, so then I could go to the beach and go all around and things like that.

You had to have permission to go home.  We were always here, at the beginning.  They didn’t take us anywhere.  My mom, she was living in Boca, so far away; she didn’t come very often.

I started taking medicine when I got here.  I was taking Promin.  I had my first job here when I was 14.  I would sweep and mop and stuff like that.  I enjoyed that.  I have five children, who were all born in Gorgas Hospital.  During that time, we were here with the Americans so all my kids were born at Gorgas Hospital.  Two children have Mr. Thompson as a father.  The other father was a patient, too.

I married Ricardo Thompson in the Catholic Chapel.  Father Fitzgerald Kennedy married us.  It was OK.  We had everything right here.  We got married in 1957.  We didn’t divorce; we split up because of problems.

My favorite job was in the store.  That was for a long time.  Because when the Americans were here, they used to have this store and I used to help pack the stuff and help the lady that was here at the time.  I got to be in charge of the store when Panama took it over, I think in 1979.  Then we bought the stuff and then I sold them and of course I used to get paid.  It wasn’t my store.  I was working in it.  Then it closed.

I had a doctor who used to come over here, and he used to have a tour of doctors from all over the world who came every six months, and then he always came to visit me, and he saw I was so sad and he asked me what was wrong.  I told him “nothing”.  He said, I’m coming back to talk to you.  So he came back and spoke and he asked me if he could get me to go to Carville, if I would accept.  I told him yes, I would.  A couple of days after he came back and said, “Get your passport and everything ready, you’re going to Louisiana.”  So we had a social worker and I got my passport and everything and there I was, on my way to Louisiana.  I was supposed to go for six months, but they did several surgeries that required a lot of time, so I spent five years and four months there.  They performed surgery on my hand, my feet, on one of my eyes.  There were people from all over the world there.  I loved it.

Many of my friends had passed away, but some of them were still here.  People kept telling me, “God knows what he’s doing.  He has something in store for you.”  I said, “He may have something in store for me, but I don’t have nothing in store for me.”  But then it got a little better.

Sometimes they have fiestas and dances, and they bring people that dance from outside.  Sometimes we get the change to go to pasear.  Not very often, but once in a while we get to go to different places, shopping.  When I was in the States, there was a shopping spree every month.

I love dogs.  They keep bringing dogs; people that don’t want them any more, they bring them and leave them here.  Then I get attached to them, and then finally sometimes they have to go.  Then people maltreat them, and I say, “I don’t ever want to see no more dogs,” and then they come and here I am again.  I’m stuck with them.  Maybe in the next world I’ll be a little black French poodle.

I was in the jail at Palo Seco because of dog food and a problem with a lady.  I had told a guy that if there is any food left, he was to give it to me for my dogs.  And the lady went and took it, and I told him, “but I said to leave it for me.”  She got upset.  She told me things that I didn’t like and we got in a fight.  And then she took up a beer bottle and bruised my head.  Pieces of the bottle went up and cut the doctor in his face and so we were thrown in the little prison that they had there.  She was a patient too.  I was there for almost a month.  It was a cell, they just had one toilet, no bathroom.  I just took water and threw it on myself in the morning.  It was rough being in the bushes there, with the mosquitoes.  That was a very bad experience.  When you did something bad, you’d get put in there.

Some of the attitudes about Hansen’s Disease have improved, but we always will have people that don’t accept the thing, you know.  But plenty are coming around, little by little.  Some of them still don’t understand.

I want people to know that Hansen’s Disease is not catching.  The public should be learning more about that, and that it’s nothing that you can breathe.  They used to say that your skin would fall off and things like that, which is not true.  For people with AIDS, it’s the same thing as with Hansen’s Disease.  It’s not catching.  So they’re not supposed to be that afraid of them.

I love television.  Once we had a big rain and the TV went off and I was almost crying.  I was sad.  Finally the Licenciada was able to fix it.  It cost $39.  I had to pay for it.  Thank God I got it back, because that TV is my life.  Sitting in the house without anything is really frustrating.  With the TV I can see different programs that I enjoy, especially the novellas.  I keep up to date with them.  I certainly miss Channel 8, because on the American Channel we used to see General Hospital and the Price is Right and all those beautiful programs and now I can’t see them because I don’t have cable.

Before we had TV, they used to show movies in the recreation hall, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English with Spanish subtitles.  When the television came, they cut out a few of the movies, but now they’ve cut them all.  We don’t get any movies because of TV.  If you want to see a movie, you have to get a tape for the VCR.  I loved “Titanic” and “The Man in the Iron Mask”.  It was beautiful.  I like romantic movies.  I don’t care too much for war pictures.  I like sentimental movies and things like that.

If someone were to make a movie of my life, there would have to be dancing and singing and jumping.  It would be a musical.

-- Interview by Mark Chesnut in 2003.  Translation from Spanish by Mark Chesnut. Copyright 2003 by Ruth Thompson and Mark Chesnut.

[Note:  Ruth Thompson was interviewed at Palo Seco Hospital, which had been opened by the American Government in Panama City in 1907.  The U. S. government turned Palo Seco over to the Panamian government in 1979.  Since leprosy is now treated on an outpatient basis, the number of residents has dwindled.  Ruth Thompson was one of seven who still lived at Palo Seco in 2003.]

Ruth Thompson with friend at Palo SecoPhoto by Mark Chesnut