Willingly going to isolation in Kalawao to help a spouse, child, or family member was considered by some to be the ultimate expression of love, the ultimate sacrifice. Starting in 1866, many relatives and friends voluntarily left their home to accompany their loved ones to provide social, emotional, and physical aid. These people were known as na kokua, or helpers.
They provided the loving care that lacked at Kalawao. Their presence served to eliminate loneliness and pain. Often, Board of Health and religious workers could not keep up with the workload of providing medical care, let alone complete other chores. Na kokua provided able–bodied labor for many tasks, including carrying water, handling freight, gathering wood, and raising livestock.
In addition to friends and relatives of patients, many religious workers arrived at Kalawao and Kalaupapa to provide care. Board of Health administrative and medical staff lived in the settlements as well. Through the years strict regulations were enforced to minimize contact between patients and non-patients. Physical barriers, such as fences, kept people apart. Life was divided this way until the isolation laws were lifted in 1969.
Father Damien – Perhaps the most famous of caregivers at Kalaupapa and Kalawao was the Catholic priest, Father Damien. While others offered help from afar, Father Damien chose to live with the patients and minister to their daily physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. He eventually contracted Hansen's disease himself and died in 1889.
Mother Marianne – In the late 1800s Mother Marianne Cope and nuns from the Sisters of St. Francis journeyed to Kalaupapa to carry on the work that Father Damien had started. She established homes for young women and managed the homes for boys. She never contracted the disease, but chose to live out the rest of her life at Kalaupapa.
Jonathan Napela - One prominent kokua was Jonathan H. Napela, a Hawaiian who accompanied his sick wife, Kitty, to Kalawao in 1873. An elder in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Sainsts, Napela and other Mormons established a church at Kalawao. He was a contemporary of Father Damien, and like the famous priest, Napela eventually contracted Hansen's disease himself and died in isolation.
Did You Know?
In the late 1940's with the discovery of sulfone drugs, some of the physical barriers between patients and non-patients were removed and a number of entertainers visited Kalaupapa, including Shirley Temple, John Wayne, the Trapp Family Singers, Red Skelton, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.