Sister Dr Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau is a name that is close to heart of many Pakistanis—especially those who suffered from leprosy. German-born, but calling Pakistan her home, Pfau is a physician and humanitarian most notable for her relentless fight against leprosy in the country during the last half of a century.

Pfau was born in 1929 at the cries of World War II. After her home was burned down, she escaped to West Germany and later went on to study medicine—making it her career in the 1950s. She then joined Daughters of the Heart of Mary, a Catholic order, who sent her to serve in India. As fate would have it, she ran into visa problems—prohibiting her from entering India—and she became stuck in Karachi, Pakistan.

The surprising turn of events became a blessing indeed, to the people of Pakistan—as marked the start of Pfau’s life dedication to treating leprosy around the country.

Pakistan's Mother Teresa: Although she was born in Germany, Dr Ruth Pfau’s heart was always in Pakistan. Photo credit: The New York Times
Pakistan's Mother Teresa: Although she was born in Germany, Dr Ruth Pfau’s heart was always in Pakistan. Photo credit: The New York Times

“Mother Teresa of Pakistan”

In 1960, Pfau was 31 when she had travelled across Pakistan and witnessed the country’s cry for help with the disease. She set up a makeshift treatment centre in a slum area, which has now grown to be The Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre. The centre registers 500 cases of leprosy every year and has now branched out into tuberculosis and blindness prevention programmes. To date, there are 157 medical centres across the country dedicated to treating and preventing leprosy.

In 1979, she was appointed as the Federal Advisor on Leprosy to the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare of Government of Pakistan. Pfau went to the remote depths of the country to treat those who didn’t have access to treatment. She also became the medium to bring Pakistan and Germany closer – by collecting donations from the two countries to be put to good use. She was awarded citizenship of Pakistan in 1988, in recognition of her contributions.

“During her lifetime, Dr Ruth worked tirelessly for the poor and the marginalised communities and was locally known as the Mother Teresa of Pakistan,” said a statement issued by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a rights-based organisation affiliated with the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

Shukriya and danke schön

Pfau’s efforts were not in vain. In 1996, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that Pakistan was among the first countries in Asia to be leprosy-free. She was awarded the country’s second-highest civilian award ‘Hilal-i-Imtiaz’ in 1979, and later the highest civilian award ‘Hilal-e-Pakistan’ in 1989.

She has since trained local doctors to replicate her success and concentrated her efforts on fighting tuberculosis and preventing blindness in remote Pakistan areas. Pfau was also recognised for her commendable role in helping the flood victims in south-western Pakistan, when the catastrophe occurred in 2010. She has also authored four books in German, detailing her work in Pakistan, which were later translated to English.

Pfau had been on treatment for heart problems, among other things, due to her advancing age at the very centre she founded (when she first came to Pakistan). Pfau has recently passed at the age of 87, leaving behind an unparalleled legacy. The people of Pakistan are forever indebted to her kindness and selflessness in struggling to fight a disease, which had caused many people to be thrown out of homes and casted away from societies. Her last rites will be paid at a church in Karachi on 19 August—giving the public a chance to say their final shukriya and danke schön.

“She gave new hope to innumerable people and proved through her illustrious toil that serving humanity knows no boundaries,” expressed Pakistan Prime Minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, in a statement. “We are proud of her exemplary services, and she will remain in our hearts as a shining symbol in times ahead,” he added. MIMS

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