By David Southwell
At the age of 10, Amar Timalsina made the startling discovery he could push a needle all the way into his leg and feel no pain.
At the time the youngster, who lived in a remote village in Nepal, used this “super power” to win a wager with school friends. However, soon after his leg began to itch so unbearably he took red-hot tongs from a fire and plunged them into the limb. Again, there was no pain.
Amar didn’t know it at the time, but this itching, coupled with the lack of feeling in his limbs, was one of the first signs he had leprosy.
It would take another two years for the condition to be formally diagnosed and, in that time, the disease ravaged Amar’s body unchecked, scarring and darkening his skin.
His family, who were poor, turned to traditional shamans to cure the mystery ailment with animal sacrifices and all-night ritual chanting. But the itching and scarring persisted.
With no adequate medical help nearby, Amar and his father travelled to Kathmandu, where specialists made the diagnosis.
Amar, now 42, still recalls hearing that dreaded L-word as the loudest sound he had ever heard.
“I thought my life had crumbled. There was no way out,” he says.
Amar’s treatment saw him hospitalised for three months while he was given a drug that removed his numbness. However, there were severe reactions.
“I had unbearable pains, like being sliced like a sharp blade,” he says.
“I shrieked day and night in the hospital bed, unable to bear the pain. Life seemed doomed; death seemed far better.”
Amar eventually returned to his village but his diagnoses meant he was an outcast – rejected by his school, his village and, worst of all, his family.
“For a child, the pain of being deprived of a mother’s touch and a father’s stroke is next to death,” Amar says.
“My siblings became far-off things; they were out of bounds to me.”
“In Nepal, a person affected by leprosy is considered a curse to the family and the society at large.
“No one was willing to come near me; no one would extend a hand to hold me. Eyes stared from a distance and kept me at bay as though I was an outcast.”
It would take six years for Amar to be cured of leprosy, but the stigma remained. He later entered into an arranged marriage, but when his wife learnt he once had leprosy she filed for divorce.
“That was one of the worst moments in my life,” Amar says. “I loved her a lot, but I was compelled to sign the divorce paper.”
Leprosy isn’t commonly spoken about in first world countries. There’s no ribbon, celebrity ambassador or awareness month. In truth, many Australians are unaware it still exists. Yet one person is diagnosed every two minutes with the disease.
Fortunately, modern medicine has found a way to cure it within a year of diagnosis and most patients are no longer infectious within 48 hours of their first treatment.
“Early diagnosis and proper rehabilitation are the most serious problems in countries where poverty is a major issue and accessibility to medical resources is the biggest challenge,” Amar says.
“Humanitarian help is required more than ever because the number of affected people is increasing.”
Despite all the hardships Amar has faced, he has managed to lead a fulfilling life devoted to helping others who have suffered, or are suffering from, leprosy.
He now works as a school principal in Kathmandu, but it was while he was teaching in Nepal that he met his second, and current, wife, Mim. The couple have two children – a son, 20, and daughter, 16.
“I found a soulmate with whom I can share my past and she happily accepted me as my partner in life,” Amar says.
Amar is also president of IDEA Nepal, an organisation that advocates for people affected by leprosy. He is also on the advisory panel of the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations.
Amar is speaking at St Luke’s Uniting Church, Highton, on 6 October. For more information, click here