The inspiring life of Ruth Pfau, leprosy doctor

Carolyn Moynihan
August 17, 2017
Reproduced with Permission

When it comes to Christians, news from Pakistan in recent years has seldom been good. An increasingly beleaguered minority in an Islamic republic, they have become targets of harassment and violent attacks, often motivated by tensions and conflicts between Islamists and the West on the world stage.

This week, however, brings a notable exception. On Saturday there will be a state funeral at St Patrick's Cathedral in Karachi for the German-born Catholic nun and doctor, Ruth Pfau, who died last week at the age of 87 after giving 50 years of her life to the service of patients with leprosy and other needs in Pakistan.

Announcing her death (and quoting a predecessor in office) Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi said:

"Dr Ruth came to Pakistan here at the dawn of a young nation, looking to make lives better for those afflicted by disease, and in doing so, found herself a home. [Although she] may have been born in Germany, her heart was always in Pakistan."

Dr Pfau was made an honorary citizen of Pakistan in 1988.

Like Mother Theresa of Calcutta, to whom she is often compared, Ruth Katharina Martha Pfau found her special vocation among the "poorest of the poor" in the post-independence era of the Indian sub-continent. It happened, humanly speaking, by accident.

After converting to Catholicism while studying to be a doctor, she had joined a religious order in 1957. In 1960 she was on her way to a posting in southern India, when she found herself stuck in Karachi over a visa issue. By chance, during the delay, she visited a leper colony in the city. The shock of the encounter moved her so much that she decided to dedicate herself to these souls. The BBC recalls :

"Well if it doesn't hit you the first time, I don't think it will ever hit you," she told the BBC in 2010 .

"Actually the first patient who really made me decide was a young Pathan. He must have been my age - I was at this time not yet 30 -- and he crawled on hands and feet into this dispensary, acting as if this was quite as if this was quite normal, as if someone has to crawl there through that slime and dirt on hands and feet, like a dog."

She could not believe that human beings could live in such conditions. And she resolved to do her best that they would not. After a period of training in India, she joined the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre, opened in 1956 in the Karachi slums and named for the order of nuns that ran it, the New York Times reports .

She soon transformed it into the hub of a network of 157 medical centres that treated tens of thousands of Pakistanis infected with leprosy.

Funded mostly by German, Austrian and Pakistani donors, the center and its satellite clinics also treated victims of the 2000 drought in Balochistan, the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir and devastating floods in 2010.

Dr Pfau rescued , among others, disfigured and suffering children who had been confined to caves and cattle pens for years by their parents, who were terrified that they were contagious. (Leprosy, or Hansen's disease, is in fact only mildly contagious, a bacterial infection that can be cured with a treatment known as multidrug therapy .)

So effective was the work of Dr Pfau's organisation that by 1996 the World Health Organisation declared the disease under control in Pakistan, ahead of most other Asian countries.

Once leprosy was declared under control, the centre also focused on tuberculosis, blindness and other diseases and on disabilities, some caused by land mines in war-torn Afghanistan.

Behind the impressive public achievements of Dr Pfau, for which she received numerous honours, was a life that seems particularly responsive to divine guidance. It seems as though from a young age God was leading her by the hand.

Born in Leipzig in 1929 of Protestant parents, Ruth and her family survived the bombing that destroyed their home during World War II and later escaped from Soviet occupied East Germany. Meanwhile the death of her baby brother had inspired her to become a doctor, and in West Germany she studied gynecology.

While still a student at Mainz, she met an elderly Christian Dutch woman, a concentration camp survivor who had devoted the rest of her life to preaching love and forgiveness. Inspired by this woman she was baptised in the Evangelical tradition and then entered the Catholic Church. After a couple of romantic attachments she decided that she had a religious vocation, and joined the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary in Paris.

"When you receive such a calling , you cannot turn it down, for it is not you who has made the choice," she once said. "God has chosen you for himself."

And, despite all her activity, Dr Pfau remained faithful to her religious life. The New York Times notes that, "even after she gave up the directorship of the Marie Adelaide centre in 2006, she lived in a single room there, rising at 5am to fulfil her obligations as a nun, and, beginning at 8am, tending to patients and running interference with government bureaucrats."

"I don't use the word 'retirement'," she wrote in one of her four books. "It sounds as if you had completed everything, as if life was over and the world was in order."

However, she expressed no regrets about her life: "Leading a life committed to service does protect the soul from wounds. These are the workings of God."

If Christians often have a hard time in Pakistan, they also face mounting criticism and opposition in Western countries as well. But "Dr Ruth's" dedicated life demonstrates how one Christian living the Gospel of charity wholeheartedly can touch the lives of thousands, and become an example for a nation.

A final word from this great woman: "Not all of us can prevent a war; but most of us can help ease sufferings - of the body and the soul."

Even if it is on the very modest scale of everyday life in a highly developed nation.