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Siblings forged an unbreakable bond after leprosy tore apart their family

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today's StoryCorps comes from the Hawaiian island of Molokai. It was once the site of America's largest leprosy colony, known as Kalaupapa. About 8,000 people from across the U.S. were quarantined there. For centuries, leprosy was a misunderstood disease. Many believed wrongly that you could catch it from a handshake. Thousands with the disease were taken from their families and exiled to leprosy colonies in the U.S. Doug Carillo and Linda Mae Lawelawe came to StoryCorps to talk about how their lives were affected by leprosy.

LINDA MAE LAWELAWE: Kalaupapa is at the bottom of this huge mountain. There's no roads. There's nothing, nothing, nothing. Nobody can go there.

DOUG CARILLO: And our dad was sick for six years in Kalaupapa. And we knew that he got married to some woman. But he got cured, so he came back home. And he just said, you have a sister, but she's been adopted. She was given away.

LAWELAWE: I was that child that Dad was talking about.

CARILLO: You know, I knew I had a sister - a half sister. But there's no way of finding out how to trace you 'cause they never had records.

LAWELAWE: My mom had leprosy, and as soon as she delivered me, the nurse picked me up and put me in another room. And there was windows, and my mom could see, but she never had the opportunity to touch me. Finding you took 55 years.

CARILLO: Exactly. But when I first seen your face...

LAWELAWE: I remember.

CARILLO: ...I said, she look just like Dad. So I knew you were my sister.

LAWELAWE: You just ran to me and gave me the most biggest hug I ever had.

CARILLO: We'd been looking for you for such a long time. So when we finally met, there was relief in my heart.

LAWELAWE: I've known you for almost 20 years, brother. And just feeling that love, I can carry you with me for the rest of my life.

MARTIN: That was Doug Carillo and Linda Mae Lawelawe. Today, leprosy is called Hansen's disease and is now curable. Nine former patients remain at Kalaupapa, all in their 80s and 90s. They still call the community home. This conversation is archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jo Corona