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Ruth Pfau remembered as ‘a human being who defined humanity’

September 01, 2017


MALC head Mervyn Lobo speaks at the SIUT on Thursday.—White Star
MALC head Mervyn Lobo speaks at the SIUT on Thursday.—White Star

KARACHI: In acknowledgement of her profound contributions to patients, the Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT) held a memorial in honour of Dr Ruth Pfau, who passed away on Aug 10, on Thursday.

“I have mixed feelings of pride and sorrow as I stand here today,” said Dr Adibul Hasan Rizvi, head of SIUT. “Pride, because we are honouring Dr Pfau, a human being who defined humanity. And sorrow, because we have lost her,” he added.

“Begging used to be the only source of income of lepers. Other people hated them, some even kicked them. Even if they had money, the vendors or shopkeepers refused to sell them bread. Their families didn’t want them. They were banished and exiled. And this was not just in Pakistan, it was like this all over Asia where people with leprosy were seen as sinners,” said Dr Rizvi, adding that even healers were careful not to touch them. “And here this young healer from Germany stayed back and grew old while always being available to them. Not only did she treat them, she also gave them back their dignity,” he said.

Senior journalist Zubeida Mustafa said Dr Pfau carried this feeling of goodness about her. “She was a gentle and humble German woman who spoke in English and Urdu with me when we first met. She learned people’s languages to not let that become a barrier in making friends,” she said.

‘She gave leprosy patients back their dignity’

“She visited patients’ homes to speak to their families about leprosy and raise awareness about it. This was how she changed people’s thinking,” she said. “Later, she also involved herself in helping patients with tuberculosis as it also has a stigma attached to it like leprosy, and blindness, too.”

Former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan Dr Ishrat Husain said that he got to know her better when she asked him to join the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre’s (MALC) board as a member. “Usually, people who have brought an institution to fruition start thinking that they should decide how to run it as well but even though she sat in every board meeting, she never overruled us,” he said.

“She led a very simple life. She was not one to chase fame, never aspired for publicity and projection. She was committed to a greater cause,” he said. “And when leprosy was receding here, she could have gone back to Germany but instead she turned her attention to TB and maternal and child care for the poor.”

MALC’s CEO Mervyn Lobo said Dr Pfau would always remain the moving spirit behind the centre. “MALC has 157 centres all over the country to where she would travel by public transport because it was less costly than travelling by special transportation. She wanted to save money for her patients while setting an example for her team members. She did her own laundry and after finishing her meals she always got up to wash her plate and utensils, too. She was a perfect role model, a pioneer way ahead of her times,” he said.

“Leprosy has been controlled in Pakistan but not eliminated. But Dr Pfau and her team, a group of very simple people, managed to do this four years before the World Health Organisation target. Dr Pfau always gave credit to her team for this,” he said.

Dr Mutaher Zia, a senior doctor in the MALC team, said that when in 2001 he was asked to write a book about the organisation, he realised that the centre’s story was not any different from Dr Pfau’s story. “So, by 2004 I had written and published a 99-page book on her life,” he said. “Dr Pfau died 13 years later,” he added. “And in those 13 years she kept working as she undid my 99 pages, making them look incomplete.”

He said that while working, she retained a good sense of humour throughout. “She loved to nag the doctors at MALC but never the lower staff,” he said. “After the 2005 earthquake in the Northern Areas, she went to Muzaffarabad to help out and set up camps there. The earthquake in the north was followed by floods in the south. Again she was there with her team to set up housing and distribute seeds among the farmers to help them restart their lives,” he said.

“Her day used to start with her attending the early morning service at the St Patrick’s Cathedral when there would be few people there. When she died, the St Patrick’s Cathedral was filled to brim with people from all faiths. She was a unifying force in life and death,” he said.

Former commissioner of Karachi Shafiq-ur-Rehman Paracha said that wherever there were leprosy patients, there was also Dr Pfau. “She would come to my office and nag me also but it was her love for people that made her do that,” he said.

Ingolf Vogul from the German consulate said Dr Pfau wanted to be inclusive with all people and not stand out.

Published in Dawn, September 1st, 2017