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Homage paid to Dr Ruth Pfau on her first death anniversary

Updated August 11, 2018

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The Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre staff observe Dr Ruth Pfau’s first death anniversary with flowers and a candlelit vigil here on Friday.
—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
The Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre staff observe Dr Ruth Pfau’s first death anniversary with flowers and a candlelit vigil here on Friday. —Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: Holding a lone red rose in one hand and a little white candle in the other, the patients, staff and guests at the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC) observed the first death anniversary of Dr Ruth Pfau on Friday.

Earlier, the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary also commemorated the occasion at the St Patrick’s Cathedral, where Cardinal Joseph Coutts carried out the holy mass with the priests of the Karachi dioceses in her memory followed by a visit to the graveyard.

Pfau was a German doctor and nun, who dedicated 57 years of her life to eradicating leprosy from Pakistan. Born in Leipzig in 1929, she first came to Pakistan in 1960 as a missionary while serving her order, the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary. Her devotion to doing something in and for Pakistan took her to become Pakistan’s leprosy fighter. Actually, her real destination was India but she got stuck in Karachi owing to a visa issue.

That was when she came across the poor lepers here. Disowned by their own families, they were left with no other choice but to beg for alms. But even if they had money, vendors or shopkeepers refused to sell them bread as they were seen as untouchables. The young doctor from Germany decided to help them. She stayed back and grew old in Pakistan, which she made her home while always being available to them. Not only did she treat them, she also gave them back their dignity by visiting their families and raising awareness of the illness. She changed people’s thinking and removed the stigma regarding leprosy.

Joining MALC, she managed to set up a network of 157 medical centres that treated thousands of people and the hard work paid off when the World Health Organisation declared leprosy under control in Pakistan in 1996. She was also granted Pakistani citizenship in 1988 and she received numerous accolades for her services, including the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, Nishan-i-Quaid-i-Azam and Hilal-i-Pakistan.

Those who worked with her at MALC or its various centres remembered her kindness to patients, even those who reacted violently during treatment due to pain. A video, ‘Tribute to Dr Ruth Pfau, a life lived for others’, was played during the remembrance ceremony. There were clips of her treating patients and travelling to the remotest of places in Pakistan with her team to help people with leprosy while also training volunteers. The video showed her grow old from a young energetic doctor but still engaged in selfless work. Then during the scenes of her funeral, the entire staff of the hospital stood up in respect. Some had tears in their eyes.

Abdus Salam, a field officer who was lucky enough to have worked with her, said that he learned everything, big or small, from Dr Pfau. “Every day as I work I remember something or the other that she had taught me. She really cared for all her patients and we try following in her footsteps,” he said.

Atiq ur Rehman, a well-respected member of the business community of Karachi and donor to MALC, said that he used to watch her work because it helped him gather inspiration. “Here was this doctor, herself so old and weak, and yet she wouldn’t tire of helping others. She will always remain alive in our hearts,” he said.

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2018