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At first glance, the exceedingly soft-spoken Dr Ruth Pfau appears to be a fragile octogenarian. It is only when she recalls the lives altered, vivid and crisp, that you realise hers is a story of no ordinary love — a love charted from Skardu to Gwadar.

During my short interview with her at the Qissa Khwani event at PACC, one thing was for sure, I had met my hero.

However, a curtailed encounter with her left me in want of a deeper look into the life of the woman, who has devoted over 50 years of her life fighting leprosy in Pakistan.

Dr Ruth Pfau speaking at the Qissa Khwani talk at the PACC. – Photo by Mahjabeen Mankani
Dr Ruth Pfau speaking at the Qissa Khwani talk at the PACC. – Photo by Mahjabeen Mankani

So last week a colleague and I visited the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC) in Saddar, Karachi to do just that.

Inside the hospital, we were led towards the winding staircase of the administration building, where pictures of Dr Pfau lined the wall. Captivated by the strong images, I stumbled twice. That made me look forward to being in her presence even more, I realised many such instances filled with wonder lay in wait and so, I quickened my pace.

I sensed the deep commitment of the people who work at this hospital, as I looked around at the pristine surroundings.

On finally arriving in Dr Pfau’s private chamber, we were asked to wait. We took this opportunity to prepare the space for the interview. During the preparations, I stole a quick peek at her room. Taken aback by the diminutive space that housed only a single bed and a tiny desk, I, at once, felt ashamed for ever complaining about the matchbox-sized student dorm room I once lived in.

A few minutes later, Dr Pfau emerged, wearing a turquoise blue and white shalwar kameez that complemented her petite frame and short silver hair. I couldn’t hide my smile when she decided to trade her turquoise blue dupatta with a darker blue one, prepping for the video interview.

Once settled in her seat, we began talking about her early days in Germany during World War II and how she came to Pakistan. With frequent pauses, where she would recollect her memory, she spoke about how the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, a congregation of nuns that she is a member of, sent her here in 1960 for a medical service for students. Her intention at the time was to go on to India but fate had other plans. When she saw the severe suffering of the leprosy patients in Pakistan, she knew this was home.

Dr Pfau travelled to various parts of Pakistan to medically facilitate leprosy patients, a journey she tremendously enjoyed because a marked difference in the patients’ condition began to appear overtime. In 1996, the World Health Organisation declared Pakistan, one of the first countries in Asia to have controlled leprosy.

“Every patient is a life story, and we enjoyed helping them all,” she said.

Dr Ruth Pfau with her patients. – Video grab from archival footage. Courtesy of MALC
Dr Ruth Pfau with her patients. – Video grab from archival footage. Courtesy of MALC

When asked if given the choice, would she prefer another country to work in, she was quick to respond: “No. In my life, if there was one correction that I could make, it would be to come to Pakistan three years earlier than I did.”

Talking about her life in Pakistan, I couldn’t overlook just how hopeful she was for the country, a refreshing change from the negative narrative that thrives in the living rooms these days.

But contrary to her optimistic outlook about Pakistan, we later discovered over tea with Mr Haider, one of the employees at the MALC, that there had been occasions when Dr Pfau had not been welcomed. She would travel to far off areas of the country, where there were no medical facilities for leprosy patients only to be threatened by men with batons when checking up on female patients.

Mr Haider also stated that there had been tough times at the MALC when Dr Pfau would sell some of her awards in exchange for money for her patients. Quoting Dr Pfau, he added that the awards meant nothing to her if her patients were suffering.

After tea, we were taken through a maze of corridors for a tour of the hospital which was connected with the main administration building.

Walking through this space, never would I have imagined the foundations of a building made from concrete to compound so much compassion.

The hospital comprises of an eye care ward, while specialising also in treatment for tuberculosis, where cure and medication are both provided for free. There is also a social department, where people come to seek financial help.

To cater to the most pertinent phase of the healing process of leprosy, the MALC has initiated a rehabilitation program, where families of leprosy patients are counselled and advised. Here, the focus is placed on creating awareness and understanding about the disease.

Dr Pfau has preferred to employ some of her leprosy patients at the hospital, incorporating a sense of normalcy in their lives; the kitchen manager and a guard at the MALC are a testimony to this.

Complimentary medicines are provided by major pharmaceutical companies, which the MALC then gives to their patients free of cost. And much to our surprise, it was a delight to learn that the KESC supplies free electricity to MALC.

Karachi Electric board inside the MALC. – Photo by Mahjabeen Mankani
Karachi Electric board inside the MALC. – Photo by Mahjabeen Mankani

As we neared the end of the hospital tour, I came upon the realisation that true courage lay in pursuing convictions — the kind of convictions that made Dr Pfau choose to leave her home country and care for an unfamiliar, and sometimes hostile people, who were plunged in the depths of misery and isolation.

Her selfless work makes one question one’s own commitment to mankind. How committed are we to caring for another? Truly, let us answer that today.

Is it enough to make us leave behind our homes and worldly comforts?

While that may be difficult to answer, what is easier to do is to be grateful for the ones who have, without a summoning, shown us that humanity thrives victorious under the cumbersome weight of apathy.

Text by Mahjabeen Mankani