Torn from Family at Birth Because of Parents' Leprosy, Woman Reunites with Brother 53 Years Later (Exclusive)

When he returned home after being cured, Teofilo Carillo reconciled with his wife and told his kids they had a sister, but he didn't know where she was

<p>Story Corps</p> Douglas Carillo, left, with half-sister Lindamae Lawelawe

Story Corps

Douglas Carillo, left, with half-sister Lindamae Lawelawe

This post is a collaboration between PEOPLE and StoryCorps, the largest collection of human voices ever archived. Lindamae Lawelawe and Douglas Carillo's story first aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on Oct. 28, 2022.

From the moment Douglas Carillo saw Lindamae Lawelawe walk towards his Maui cottage door in 2003, he knew this stranger was his long-lost sister.

“I look at this small little Filipino girl and tell my wife, ‘This girl looks just like my dad,’ ‘’ Carillo, 81, tells PEOPLE. “I open the door and she starts crying, and we are hugging and kissing. It was like my dad was there.”

Lawelawe says she too felt at home when she met Douglas.

“When he showed me a picture I saw I did look just like my dad,” says Lawelawe, 75, who was taken from her biological parents shortly after she was born and never got a chance to meet him.

Teofilo Carillo was a young farm laborer who was married with two sons and two daughters when he found out he had Hansen's disease, also known as leprosy. He was exiled to Kalaupapa, located on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, in 1946. The family had no expectation he would return and the couple made the decision to separate.

<p>Courtesy Lindamae Lawelawe</p> Tiofilo Carillo was exiled from his family to a leper colony for what he thought would be the rest of his life.

Courtesy Lindamae Lawelawe

Tiofilo Carillo was exiled from his family to a leper colony for what he thought would be the rest of his life.

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In the five years he ended up living at Kalaupapa, where thousands of people were exiled during the 19th and 20th centuries, his family back home struggled to stay afloat. A kindly neighbor brought them rabbits to eat and Douglas' mom took odd jobs and welfare to keep the family going. Fortunately, the plantation where Teofilo had worked allowed them to keep their two-bedroom house.

After great strides in medical research, Teofilo was cured and allowed to leave Kalaupapa around the end of 1951. But Nellie Kaimuki Hueu, Lawelawe’s biological mom, didn't want to leave.

So Teofilo contacted the mother of his other children, who allowed him to come home and they ended up reconciling.

He also returned home with a pet goat and introduced the animal to his children by saying it had the same name as their half-sister, son Douglas remembers.

“He sat them all down and told them...they had a sister but he didn’t know where she was,” Lawelawe says. “When Douglas told me I was angry that my dad named his goat after me, but I was more angry that he died before I could meet him.”

<p>Courtesy Lindamae Lawelawe</p> From left, siblings Melvin Carillo, Lindamae Lawelawe, Douglas Carillo and his wife Alice

Courtesy Lindamae Lawelawe

From left, siblings Melvin Carillo, Lindamae Lawelawe, Douglas Carillo and his wife Alice

Lawelawe was born in a Honolulu hospital, but was taken from her biological parents when she was less than a week old. Children born to people with Hansen's disease were not allowed to stay with their parents, and she was adopted by the Lawelawes, another Hawaiian family.

Although the Lawelawes had adopted other Kalaupapa babies, they never told her about her background. It was only after her adoptive father died and Lawelawe was 12 that her biological mom told her she was adopted.

A chance connection between a member of her adoptive family and the Carillo family revealed her roots. She attempted to get in touch with her dad by calling every Carillo she could find on the island, but discovered her father had died.

Listen to Lawelawe and Carillo share their journey with StoryCorps in the player below.

The woman on the other end of the call delivered the news about his death, but also offered up her father-in-law Douglas, Tiofilo’s son.

After they had a chance to talk, Lawelawe asked if she could come visit. The divorced mom of three, who had been living in Las Vegas, ended up staying much longer.

<p>Courtesy Lindamae Lawelawe</p> Young Lindamae Lawelawe

Courtesy Lindamae Lawelawe

Young Lindamae Lawelawe

“I got to meet my [biological] mother when I was 55, then I met my brother and stayed until 2015,” Lawelawe says. “I was so seized by the story of the lost children of Kalaupapa that I wanted to write a book about it.”

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Her biological mother, who had married another member of the colony, the late Fred McCarthy, wasn’t keen on either her reunion with Lawelawe or the possibility of a book telling a story she didn’t want to be told.

“She made me promise I wouldn’t do anything until she died," Lawelawe says. "She died in 2009, I finished my book in 2011 and got it published in 2021."

<p>Courtesy Lindamae Lawelawe</p> Nellie McCarthy, Lindamae Lawelawe's birth mother.

Courtesy Lindamae Lawelawe

Nellie McCarthy, Lindamae Lawelawe's birth mother.

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Urging her to write the book was her oldest biological brother Melvin, who also lived in Las Vegas.

“When I moved back to Las Vegas, I became very close with my brother Mel,” Lawelawe says. “He wanted me to write the book. He died in 2021.”

<p>Courtesy Lindamae Lawelawe</p> Lindamae Lawelawe and her book, "The Lost Children of Kalaupapa" by Lindamae Maldonado

Courtesy Lindamae Lawelawe

Lindamae Lawelawe and her book, "The Lost Children of Kalaupapa" by Lindamae Maldonado

Douglas and Lawelawe’s relationship has grown stronger over the years since they first met more than 20 years ago.

“We've bonded through the years. She wanted us to move up to Las Vegas, but we're not ready for that kind of place,” says Douglas, who has a large family of four children, 16 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren in Hawaii. “Too much traffic.”

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Lawelawe and Dougas talk often on the phone, and he and his wife Alice travel to Las Vegas twice a year for a bowling tournament and to meet up with her. They also plan on having a reunion this October.

“He tells me we are the last two Carillos alive,” Lawelawe says. “He’s a sweetheart and I love him."

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