May 24, 1999 12:00 PM

The band begins to play in the early afternoon, filling the ballroom with the happy-sad sounds of New Orleans jazz. Among the colorfully decorated tables, the guests, mostly elderly and dressed for the occasion in fanciful costumes, begin to mingle: here a clown, there a graying Pocahontas. It is Mardi Gras, and the good times are about to roll.

Yet the celebration is bittersweet for at least one in the crowd, 90-year-old Betty Martin. Since she arrived here at the Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease Center in 1928 as a frightened teenager newly diagnosed with leprosy, the Carville, La., facility has been the Louisiana native’s on-again, off-again home. It was here, beneath the live oaks that shade the hospital’s 337-acre campus on a former sugar plantation, that Martin met her future husband and here that she took part in dramatic medical experiments that would ultimately tame a once ferocious—and terrifying—disease. But before the end of the year, state authorities plan to convert the hospital at Carville—the last residential treatment and research center in the United States for the condition formerly known as leprosy—into a home for at-risk teenagers, displacing the remaining 68 year-round residents, Martin among them.

The oldest of five children of a department-store manager and his wife Betty Martin (the pseudonym and pen name she has used for years because of the stigma long attached to her illness) grew up in the comfortable neighborhood of Carrollton. She went to Catholic schools, studied violin and, as soon as her parents would allow, joined in the dizzying swirl of New Orleans high society. “We didn’t have that kind of money,” recalls one of Martin’s sisters, Rita, now 79, “but we bummed with the debutantes.”

In 1927, Martin was working as a secretary and had become engaged to a handsome medical student. Then late one evening after Christmas, after she had returned from a dance club, a shadow fell over her life. In her parents’ dimly lit salon, her fiance told her that tests had determined the cause of the red mark on her thigh. “Betty,” he told her, “you have leprosy.”

Given what was known about the disease at the time, he might as well have been delivering a death sentence. Today, Hansen’s disease, a bacterial infection that can cause damage to peripheral nerves, skin and eyes, can be treated effectively with drugs. But in 1927 the disease meant a life of quarantine and probable disfigurement. Martin left for Carville, telling friends she was off to visit an aunt out of state.

She clung to the hope that her recovery would be swift and proudly refused to mix with most of the residents. One of them, Stanley Stein, described her in a 1963 book as “very French looking, very charming and very snooty.” In fact, Martin was desperately lonely, especially after her fiance broke off their engagement in 1929. “It was as hard for him as it was for her,” recalls Rita. “But he became a very prominent doctor. [Being married to Betty] would have ruined his career.”

Slowly, Martin got used to the endless series of treatments with medicated oil and settled into her job as a teacher at the center’s school for children, while outside the barbed-wire-topped fence that made the patients virtual prisoners, the world moved on. “The election of a President or world affairs were as nothing compared to the rumor that there might be fricassee for dinner,” she wrote in her 1950 book Miracle at Carville, which has drawn recent interest from several screenwriters.

Not far from Betty’s new home in Cottage 31, a young patient in Cottage 30 was dealing with his own disrupted life. Harry Martin, a former high school football hero from Garyville, La., had also left a sweetheart behind when he was forced to drop out of college at 18 and move to Carville. By late 1930, Betty and Harry were taking strolls together. “Harry was good-looking, a wonderful person,” says Betty today. One afternoon, while watching boats on the nearby Mississippi River from a tall platform built for the patients, the couple told each other their real names—a sign, in Carville, of the deepest trust.

Together the young lovers planned a future—and an escape. One night in 1933, with the help of their families and even some of the doctors, they ducked through a hole in the perimeter fence, where they were met by a car that took them to New Orleans. There, Betty found a job as a secretary, while Harry worked at his family’s clothing store in nearby Marrero, La. They lived in fear of infecting others, although doctors believe that 95 percent of the population is immune to the disease.

Four years later they were married by a Catholic priest and settled into a home built for them by Harry’s father. “We were happy,” Betty later wrote. But eventually red blotches appeared on Harry’s ears, which customers at his father’s shop mistook for poison ivy. The truth, of course, was bitter. Harry’s illness had re-emerged, and they spent their first wedding anniversary packing their bags for Carville. “I held Harry’s hand,” Betty wrote, “and I remember saying to him, ‘It isn’t so bad this time, is it, because we’re together.’ ”

In fact, hospital rules at the time forbade cohabitation, even for married couples. But living at Carville also had its advantages, including first-class medical care. Beginning in 1941, Betty and Harry volunteered to receive experimental drugs that greatly improved their health until, by 1947, they had both tested negative for Hansen’s disease for 12 consecutive months. At last they were legally free to leave.

For 20 years Harry and Betty traveled the country. “They sent postcards from everywhere,” says Rita. Harry sold insurance, and Betty wrote Miracle, a rich account of her life with Hansen’s disease. Eventually they bought a house in Lemon Grove, Calif. “They were happy in their own way,” says Harry’s brother Hirsch Meyer, 76, a retired civil engineer. But their secret past remained a heavy burden. “That’s why they traveled so much,” says Meyer, “so they didn’t have to explain.”

The one place where the Martins had nothing to hide, of course, was Carville, where they returned for treatments periodically when symptoms reappeared over the years. “They were like the Gracie Allen and George Burns of Carville,” says hospital staffer Tanya Thomassie. “He had a wonderful dry wit, but he always said she was the celebrity.” The couple moved back to the center for good in 1990, sharing an apartment and, later, a room in the infirmary. Harry died of pneumonia in 1996, still boyishly in love with his wife. Says his sister-in-law Dookie Meyer, 70: “He’d look at her like she was the most gorgeous thing he’d ever seen.”

This February marked Betty Martin’s third Mardi Gras without Harry. “We had happy times,” she says. In years past she has dressed as a flapper and as Cleopatra for Carville masquerades, but this year she chose to go as herself. Seated behind a writing desk atop an indoor float, she was wheeled around the room, like a grande dame surveying her domain one last time. Soon she will move to a hospital in Baton Rouge. “We spent so much time at Carville,” she says. “Life just won’t be the same without it.”

Patrick Rogers

Kate Klise in Carville

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