By Jean Redstone
The world’s tallest sea cliffs, nearly 2,000 feet high of sheer, vertical, volcanic rock, protect the landward side of the tiny, yet infamous village of Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, home to a modern day leper colony.
The rough, forbidding sea that crashes the peninsula where Kalaupapa (KAH-law-papa) clings to the only flatland around, protects the other side. The whole idea of Kalaupapa, founded in the mid-1800s as a leper colony, is that once you were in, you could not get out.
Most people are surprised to learn there are still leper colonies in the U.S. In fact, Kalaupapa is one of just two such colonies in the country (the other is in Carville, LA, where a drug to treat leprosy, known as Hansen‘s Disease, was discovered in 1941.)
There are only two ways into Kalaupapa. You can hike or take a mule down the three-mile switchback-riddled cliff trail from the top of the cliffs to the peninsula, or you can take your chances with the small eight-passenger plane that daily brings in tourists and a few supplies (and takes them out again. You cannot stay overnight in Kalaupapa without state authorization.)
Maureen Beail-Farkas of Woolwich Township found herself at the colony earlier this year because of a cruise and a chance meeting.
A perfectly ordinary woman with a talent for leaping into the extraordinary, Beail-Farkas has apparently never said “no” to adventure. So when she realized she had been to every state in America but Hawaii, she booked a cruise.
In Honolulu, she said, “I met a nurse who was the acting director of nursing for the Kalaupapa colony and she offered me a job.” Beail-Farkas, a registered nurse with EMT training (from her job as a police officer in San Diego) and experience in isolated places (from her work with the Peace Corps in Chile), decided the offer, “sounded just like my job description,” although she admitted she was unaware at the time that the colony existed.
Interviewed for this story by cell phone, email and text, none of which could be used reliably, Beail-Farkas said she is the “medical personnel” for the remaining 11 to 13 Hansen’s Disease patients in the colony,
“A doctor flies in every other week, but otherwise, I’m the medical service,” she said. “My job is with the state of Hawaii and only for the patients at the colony. If something happens to a visitor or a park ranger, I am not expected to treat them.” She can tend to them, however, if she decides she wants to, she said.
At one time, of course, the Hawaiian leper colony held hundreds of people, exiled beginning in the mid1800s. People feared the mysterious disease that, long-term, can cause severe skin, respiratory, nerve and joint damage, blindness, and loss of use of hands or feet.
About 200 people in the U.S. are diagnosed each year with Hansen’s Disease, but today the illness is fully managed with drugs when diagnosed early.
Kalaupapa continues to house the patients and families that decided not to leave once the disease could be treated. “This was the only home most of them knew,” Beail-Farkas explained. “They had nowhere else to go.” The state and federal government guaranteed them a home on the island until the last patient is gone.
Beail-Farkas said she was struck by the amount of history the remaining patients carry with them. “The thing to know is these houses are their houses. They belong to them. Everything done here is done for the patients,” she said.
As if to illustrate, Beail-Farkas broke off a conversation to phone an elderly woman from the clinic phone. “Hello, honey,” Beail-Farkas could be heard saying. Then, in a sing-song, “Good morning. It’s a sunny day and it’s time to get up. Get up, dear.” She made the call every morning, Beail-Farkas said. “This lady likes to be awakened at a certain time.”
The sweep of history at the place she was in hit home one day when Beail-Farkas met Flat Stanley. Now, Flat Stanley did not arrive by plane or mule. He found a third way in. He came by mail.
“Do you know who Flat Stanley is?” Beail-Farkas asked, a laugh in her voice. “He’s the character in this children’s book series and he got squashed so he’s so flat he can be mailed all over the world. When he visits you, you’re supposed to take a picture with him in it and send it back to who sent it to you.”
Her grandson, she said, had mailed her Flat Stanley. “I decided I wanted to go out to the lower cliffs and take his picture against the ocean.”
Beail-Farkas carried Stanley and went with her friend, a 92-year-old patient, to get the picture. “He started to tell me about the time, right at this spot, when he was much younger. People here married each other because there was no other choice. I don’t know if he was here with his family but the truck they were in (accidentally) kicked into gear and drove off the cliff.
“I thought, there’s a piece of history, a piece no one will ever know about this cliff once he’s gone. It was sad. I mean, there’s still the story told about a patient who was on the cliff top in 1941 and watched the kamikaze planes fly into Honolulu (to Pearl Harbor). He saw the pilots’ faces.
“Who will keep the history when these patients are no longer here?”
Despite her question, Beail-Farkas does not dwell on history, including her own, as varied and adventurous as it is. Before she took her degree in nursing (Immaculata University), Beail-Farkas was one of the first women police officers in San Diego (or, for that matter, the country). She also trained with the police as an Emergency Technician and rode with the police ambulance.
While in college, she had met her husband, Abe Farkas, who also became an officer, once he returned from duty in Viet Nam. They decided, she said, to more or less arrange their lives to see the world. “I just like doing things,” she said.
The middle of three children, Beail-Farkas said, “I really think my life kind of started when my husband and I got together. He was exactly like me. We thought alike. We encouraged each other.”
They joined the police, “because I thought it was a good idea. It paid well and I liked to try new things.” It was an idea, she elaborated, that seemed “cool.”
Pretty much “cool” is the explanation Beail-Farkas still gives as the reason she did something. And cool has taken her just where she and her husband hoped to go.
Following a five-year stint on the police force, the family joined the Peace Corps. “They were looking for someone with medical training and someone with agricultural knowledge,” Beail-Farkas said. “I was an EMT and Abe grew up on a farm in Czechoslovakia (he came to America at 16 with his mother, a concentration camp survivor.)
Beail-Farkas worked with orphan children and with mothers in Chili. Back in the states, she became a nurse RN and she and her husband raised four children.
Then one winter day in 2009, her husband, who operated a grocery truck in Chester, PA, was shot, killed, and robbed. The murderer has yet to be found.
Beail-Farkas does not dwell on this devastation and does not wish revenge. But he is on her mind as she considers the various opportunities life presents her. “We were going to see the world, just take two or three years and see the world,” Beail-Farkas said. “I would never have thought to call myself curious or adventurous but so many people say it of me, I guess I am.
“And Abe was just like me. My whole life I have found myself in strange situations, usually involving something medical. That must mean something.”
After her husband’s death, Beail-Farkas traveled to Ireland with her son, “and I just kept on going. I went to Germany. To Israel. It seemed the cool thing to do and I’m pretty independent. I generally do what I want,” she said.
Now that she’s back from Kalaupapa, is there a next adventure? “Well, a friend of mine is building a health clinic in Liberia,” Beail-Farkas said. “I told her I could give her at least a week each year. And I may go back to the colony, also.
“Something will come up. Something always does. I’ve always loved all my jobs. I guess it must be that I put myself into whatever I’m doing. I’ve learned to trust myself. To trust nature and that things will work out. Other than Abe being killed, it always has. So if I had a philosophy, it’s to try and leave things a little better than when I came.”
And wouldn’t it be “cool” if everyone did that?