Olinda. A decade, many memories

Olinda * lived somewhere in the Serra de Montemuro.
The father had “the disease” since he was 18, as she said “he lay down on the green grass, then he passed the shadow and he was taken away from the hands”.
But it was only when his son asked to leave the army to take care of him that they knew about the existence of the Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais (HCRP).

She, her brothers, mother and father have since been followed by a “medical board” that annually took place at the county seat. When this started, Olinda was married, and already had a son. But, one year, the husband was absent, and Olinda missed the medical board. The rest of the family attended and the mother ended up reporting that Olinda had appeared with some spots on her skin. Following this, Olinda was notified to appear on another date, when she was examined and when she was biopsied on the buttock.
About twelve days later she was visited at her home by a Medical Brigade. On that occasion, she was informed by the HCRP official that the tests had accused the hansen’s disease and, therefore, she should accompany them immediately to be admitted to the Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais, in Tocha.


Olinda remembers that it was mid-March 1964, and was raining heavily. She had just made bread dough and the wood oven was already on. At that time, she was 38 years old and had five children, the youngest at eight months of age, was still breastfed. The mother-in-law had died days ago, and Olinda did not believe that her husband could take care of the children in his absence, so she told the social worker that she would not go without taking them. The members of the brigade, initially reluctant, eventually agreed and on the same day Olinda and her children were driven in the hospital. At the end of the day, when they reached their destination, the children were sent to the Preventório and Olinda to the Hospital. When recalling this day, Olinda says: “they ruined my whole life, because my life was organized and then my husband was unable to care for what was ours”.


However, in order to be able to visit Olinda and her children, her husband ended up finding a job at the Vista Alegre factory in Ílhavo and settled in the area, where one of his sisters lived.
Olinda, installed in one of the HCRP pavilions, would see her children at the entrance whenever she asked. The first time she saw them, they were “behind glass and neither we heard them nor they heard us”. He confesses that he longed to take the children, to have them with him“. I felt sorry for them, of course, but I couldn’t get to the edge of them, or anything… Look at the sadness. But people cheered me up”. In the final phase of her stay at the HCRP, she already visited her children at the lobby, “other than through glass”.


After some time, Olinda ended up getting a temporary authorization to go home, but when she got there “everything had collapsed and there was nothing inside the doors”. At the same time, her husband became ill with tuberculosis and was admitted to the hospital in Viseu. These setbacks made it impossible for Olinda to return to the HCRP on the date set by the license, so the hospital sent someone looking for her. Even though her husband was ill, she had to return to the HCRP, leaving him in the care of her sister, while they waited for him to be called to the Sanatorium of Caramulo. As a result of her delay, Olinda was “sentenced” to spend twenty days in “jail”. Located in pavilion 9 of the HCRP, this chain had no bars, the windows were very high and the time spent there seemed like an eternity. It was worth the daily visit of Sister Margarida, who at recess talked to her in the gallery.

Olinda felt sad, but despite knowing that there were no walls, rather seats with a net, and guards, she continuing day-to-day lives, as they could, after this event. She continued to apply for leave to visit her husband, and to ask to see her children at the concierge, and the Hospital never denied.

She made friends, with Sisters Margarida, Marta and Maria do Rosário. Also had a good relationship with the nurses, who “bought” him socks and woolen jackets.


With the exception of an assistant Sister, when visited her “took all her skirts so as not to reach them on the walls because they were afraid that the disease would catch her skirt, the others were not disgusted with me”. He even mentions: “I don’t have many complaints from there, from the people there. They never treated me badly. ”

Although it is remembered that there were sad events, such as patients who committed suicide, she says that there were festive moments in HCRP: “teams went there to play soccer, in the nursing home for sick children there were some parties and on a stage that was always armed, a group called “The Elite” play several times there. At Christmas everyone went to the mass of the cock, and then, they ate sweet french toast, fried pumpkin cakes and other Christmas sweets in the canteen, which they could take later to the dormitories. It was all done by the Sisters, with the oil left over from the previous year.


With regard to the symptoms of the disease and treatment, Olinda describes some comments she heard from the Sisters and some doctors that led her to believe that she did not have “the disease” and that her hospitalization would be a kind of consequence for having missed the medical board. She says that one of the Sisters advised her not to enter the treatment room in order not to get infected and, and Olinda also told that one of the doctors said to her: “You did not go to the medical board with your father, but now you will be here as long as necessary”. In addition to these, she keeps in his memories an episode that occurred years later in a consultation, when the doctor asked him: “what are you doing here in this hospital if you do not have the disease?”


Olinda did not show signs like the other patients, “I had no sores, nor was I stunted … nothing!” She did not have the most malignant type of leprosy. The symptoms were restricted to a lack of sensitivity, especially to the heat and a kind of injury to the elbows, which seemed to “slip away.”

Seeing that some patients were hospitalized for a short time, and believing that it was possible to be discharged more quickly, the husband still asked for the interference of a priest for Olinda and the children to return home, but did not achieve the intended result.

During her stay at the HCRP, Olinda remembers that treatment consisted of taking pills, first in a dose of 25 mg and then 50 mg, and therefore, she did not understand why she could not do the treatment without being hospitalized. Later, when he left the hospital, he was given some pills to take at home… and he says: “when placed in the land, nothing was born around…”

In fact, until 1990, she received visits from the “Brigades”, which collected samples for analysis. After that date, she continued to be followed by a nurse from the Health Center in the area of residence, who only stopped making the home visit and collecting samples for analysis about three years ago.


At HCRP, whenever she could, worked cleaning up the pavilions. She received 10 pennies an hour and this money was kept in secretary. When they wanted to receive it, they had to make a request, which authorized a family member to raise the amount at the hospital concierge. Because, as she explains: “we had no order to have a penny with us, for nothing. When the husband went there, he raised the money at the entrance. The first time for him, to eat, he wasn’t working, he did not have.”

Olinda recognizes that in the 10 years she has been in the hospital, she has enjoyed many hospital licenses to visit her sick husband, managing to extend them for a longer time through certificates issued by the parish priest or by the governor. 

During the time she was at the hospital, she had two children and “as soon they were born, they took us there to the daycare center and there they looked after them when were little”. One of the boys died at twenty-one days old. They gave her permission to go to hospital concierge to see when they took him in the small white coffin to the Tocha cemetery.

When, her husband, who had been admitted to the Sanatorium of Caramulo, was operated on for a lung, and Olinda was with him for a long time. At that time, she had not requested a leave of absence and was almost being discovered in the HCRP, risking going to jail again. Thanks to the friendship of a Sister and a nurse who covered up.


After her husband was discharged from the Sanatorium of Caramulo, the administrator gave the order to pick him up from Olinda. They were installed in a family nucleus house, where they could have a vegetable garden and some chickens. Olinda cooked their meals with the grocery sent every fortnight by the hospital and with the flue and bread that she received every day when “the cart passed”.


Sometime later, the social workers visited Olinda’s father, already after the death of her mother, and realizing the difficult situation he was, they also took the initiative to take him to the HCRP, where he was still almost six years. Although, at times, Olinda heard things that the administrator did not like, such as: “you should work for free, because the hospital raised your children”, and had to answer “I did not come here because I wanted to, it was not me who brought my family here”. But Olinda admits that she had support from the hospital that she does not forget. As an example, she mentions the support of the director who made it possible for her father to die at home, and during this event to be accompanied by a hospital nurse.


When “25 April 1974 came” “the administrator told her that whoever wanted to leave could go” and gave her the choice: “if I want I can get a house there in the neighborhood (for the employees), or if she prefers to go to her land I will put the children at the hospital entrance and you can leaves”. Olinda, her husband and children left HCRP, and went to live in another region. In the first days, as they had no belongings, they had to sleep on the floor…


Subsequently, the administrator authorized the granting of a mattress, some pots and chickens that Olinda and her husband had in the house of family nucleus, where they lived before leaving the Hospital. It was all in a van for the new address.

By the suggestion of the director of Preventório, and the social worker of the Hospital, the three youngest children still went back to attend the Preventório and the school for two more school years, until 1977. In parallel, the social assistant “helped her a lot”, “even sending money and blankets”. The six children Of Olinda, all passed through the Preventório, and most ended up doing the equivalent of 9th grade, one of the girls did up to 12th grade and another ended up graduating in nursing.


Taking stock of the hospital’s mission, Olinda, now 94 years old, remembers how shocked she was when, in the hospital and in the asylum, she came across the patients there: “I had never seen such a thing, some without a nose, others without ears, without fingers, with clawed hands, without feet, and with wounds. Those dressings were made for him but they didn’t heal … it was a sadness”.


She confesses that in these cases considers that the HCRP “was good for those who had the disease, because that way they didn’t give jobs to theirs families” nor “they caught the disease to anyone, nor were they making people disgusted”.

And he also recalls that “for many patients that hospital remained their home, many remained there because they did not want to leave…”




* Fictitious name.

(Text based on oral testimony, in 2020, validated by the interviewee. Interview and writing by Cristina Nogueira – CulturAge)