“I see angels every day.”

One summer day of July 2001, I walked into the building of San Lázaro Psychiatric Hospital. This colonial building was made in 1751 as a house for poor, homeless, sick, mental illness, leprosy patients, and abandoned children. I was told its name, San Lázaro, came from Lázaro, who was a leprosy helper in the Bible. After changes of many years, it is now a three-story massive building standing on a steep hillside of the old colonial section of Quito, Ecuador. I heard about this hospital while I was working on another project in Ecuador, and since then something had been urging me to photograph there. I finally asked Trinidad, my good friend in Ecuador, to take me to the hospital.

With its aged high white walls, I somehow imagined inside to be a bit of chaos, like the last scene of the movie “Amadeus”. But when I went inside, the first thing I saw was a courtyard, simple and peaceful with a fountain in the middle, and there were several people standing quietly. I wondered if they were patients. Mostly, I was surprised at the calmness.

We went upstairs to the women’s section and entered a large room with evenly spaced beds lined up on both sides, and there were many patients. Some are walking around, and some are sitting on beds, while others are sleeping. As we walked by, a woman started to walk side by side with us. I see her eyes full of excitement and curiosity. She follows us around to the outside of the room and started to talk. She kept talking without stop and complained about her toothache every 5 minutes. When we were finally about to leave her, she said, “Do you see the angels? Have you seen the angels?” and she declared, “I see angels every day.”

The hospital has a large church inside, occupying almost one fifth of the complex. Besides doctors and nurses, there are nuns who seem to play important rolls of the hospital activities and caring of the patients. I was reminded by a doctor that medical science started as a part of religious endeavors, and the churches were big part of saving the souls of sick people. Only recently, science became the dominant part, and religious aspect became smaller in general. I was intrigued by the way science and religion co-existed in this hospital doing their parts in effort to help those who were struck by the most intrinsically human illnesses.

There are many stories to tell. These pictures were taken inside of the hospital and in the adjacent colonial section of Quito. They are all visual reminder of the stories I heard.