Beloit nurse worked in leper colony Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Pat Casucci, Catholic Herald Correspondent   
Thursday, Apr. 12, 2018 -- 12:00 AM
Sandra Clisham holds a picture of St. Damien De Veuster and Christ, painted by Henry, a leper patient she treated in Hawaii. St. Damien cared for leprosy patients in Hawaii. (Catholic Herald photo/Pat Casucci)

BELOIT -- Perhaps Sandra Clisham, an Our Lady of the Assumption (OLA) parishioner in Beloit, could be described as being rooted in service and sacrifice.

Clisham is a licensed LPN and is now retired. She spent the better part of 10 years working in Hawaii, the last four of those at Kalaupapa Hospital, which served the leper colony on the island of Molokai.

The leper colony itself is located on the remote, windy, north shore of the Kalaupapa Peninsula. Some of the highest cliffs in the world surround the peninsula. Supplies arrive by barge. Food is flown in.

She shrugged her shoulders and said in her calm, humble manner, “I never considered it that important” when she was asked about her experiences in Hawaii.

Adventurous spirit

Her adventurous spirit led to her work of service and care for the few remaining people who chose to continue living at the former leper colony on Molokai.

On a trip to Hawaii in the early 1980s, Clisham visited the leper colony and was impressed with the contrast between the beauty of the area and its history.

She explained, “While I was there on the trip, I jokingly said to a hospital official, ‘If you have any job openings at the hospital, let me know.’” She admitted, “I knew it would be a challenge. But life has always been a challenge for me.”

Not long afterwards, the hospital called and told her she had a job there. At first she worked in a larger hospital on the island of Kauai until there was an opening at Kalaupapa.

So began Clisham's odyssey.

How lepers were treated

She pointed out that leprosy is now called Hansen’s disease. By the 1800s, it had spread rapidly throughout the Hawaiian Islands and by mid-century, lepers were exiled to the Kalaupapa Peninsula.

The disease was not understood, and the lepers were left to fend for themselves. Walled off from the world, they bonded together, living their lives out in what histories describe as sad, demoralizing, neglected conditions.

For more than a century, hundreds of people were forced to live there. After 1969, the quarantine ended when the disease became better understood and could be treated with antibiotics. The colony is now designated as a National Historical Park.

Beloit’s connection to Molokai
Beloit has a connection to Molokai as the famed Br. Joseph Dutton spent many years there caring for people affected with leprosy. He worked with St. Damien de Veuster. Brother Dutton Grade School, now closed, was named for Dutton, a Rock County native. The St. Jude Parish pastor in the 1920s considered Dutton to be a hero.
While working at Kalaupapa,Hawaii, Sandra Clisham added her support for the Beloit Brother Dutton School. She said, “One year when the school held a walkathon, I decided to walk here. We took up a collection among our residents and sent about $100 to Beloit.” 

Clisham’s voice was calm and solemn as she stated, “Horrible things happened there. Horrible things on this serene, beautiful, peaceful place.” She added, “At this time, there is not another disease in the world that has patients better taken care of.”

Living and working on Molokai

She shared her story. “In 1985, I arrived on Molokai with only my pots and pans, because I like to cook and bake.” Her household items and furnishings had been placed in storage.

“I especially enjoyed making pies using a native fruit that workers picked for me,” she said.

Determined to succeed

Clisham was determined to succeed. “I made up my mind that since I was going to be there, I must make the most of it. There was nothing on that peninsula, no store, no taxi, nothing,” she stressed.

Among the residents are many federal workers. The lepers live in their own homes.

She worked on the surgical floor at the hospital, treating patients’ sores that were caused by leprosy. With this experience, Clisham wrote the entire wound care protocol for the hospital.

With a smile she added, “And, I think I did a good job.” For a time, she took a short leave of absence from the hospital to do private duty nursing.

Clisham had her own house on the Kalaupapa Peninsula with a beautiful view of the nearby ocean. It had formerly belonged to a patient.

“I wanted a garden and to be near the beach. I’m a water person and love to swim in the ocean,” she said, revealing her sunny disposition. She liked the garden produce, but invasive deer and mongoose were continual challenges.

Gift of humor

Laughter helped Clisham as she cared for her patients. “I feel laughter is so important. It helped make the patients comfortable,” she said.

“When patients were reluctant to be treated, or uncooperative, I had my special way to convince them they needed treatment. I tried to let the patients feel it was actually their idea,” she said.

Clisham humbly shared, “Throughout my life, I’ve taken a job for the challenge it offers. I think I have something to offer to help make people well, to help them do something to help themselves.”

She has numerous stories and memories of experiences with her patients, and how she carefully treated them using her gift of humor.

“This always encouraged me in my work. Humor is a gift and I try to follow through with it,” she said smiling.

Treasured memories

Among Clisham’s treasured memories of her work are dozens of photos taken at the colony. A patient she often treated painted an original picture depicting Fr. Damien de Veuster and Christ which he presented to her. “This painting that Henry did for me is very special,” she said. (Father Damien, now St. Damien, ministered to the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of the lepers.)

“I have wonderful memories of my years on Molokai” she said. “I’m a person who can get along well with people,” she added.

Clisham returns to Hawaii to visit friends about every two years. “And I always look forward to picking mangoes!” she exclaimed.

She mentioned a couple more of her adventures. She worked for two years at a men’s maximum security prison in North Carolina where she delivered medical supplies for the state. She is fond of a painting done for her by a man on death row whom she had befriended.

A few years ago, Clisham agreed to house sit for a friend living on the tropical island of Fiji. The two month job ended in only a few weeks because a powerful cyclone devastated the area and blew the roof off the house where she lived. She described escaping the devastation by luckily finding a boat that was leaving the area.

At OLA, Clisham serves as a hospitality minister, helps at parish fish fries, and bakes for events. In the Beloit community, she volunteers at Caritas and the St. Vincent de Paul Store.

OLA Director of Liturgy and Music Randy Gracyalny commented that Clisham “is a fine example of missionary discipleship.”

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