Ruth Pfau

Now that I’m older, I look at the obituaries more often. Sometimes you run into ones like this:

Dr. Pfau, while not widely covered in the Western media, was renowned in Pakistan for her efforts to stop the spread of leprosy, a bacterial infection also called Hansen’s disease that when untreated can cause disfigurement and blindness. Around the world, its victims have often been relegated to “leper colonies” and regarded as outcasts.

The Express Tribune of Pakistan once credited Dr. Pfau with having “single-handedly . . . turned the tide of leprosy in Pakistan and won the gratitude and personal attentions of people ranging from military rulers to elected ministers to the general public.”

She has a couple great quotes:

But diverted to Pakistan while waiting for her visa in 1958, she was to stumble upon leprosy, a disease she had never heard of in a country she did not know existed.

“Well if it doesn’t hit you the first time, I don’t think it will ever hit you,” she recalled, after first seeing leprosy during a visit to a makeshift dispensary built on a disused graveyard in Karachi.

“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 normal, as if someone has to crawl there through that slime and dirt on hands and feet, like a dog.”

and:

“Not all of us can prevent a war; but most of us can help ease sufferings — of the body and the soul.”

After helping Pakistan to become the first Asian country to have leprosy under control, she also:

She has also assisted the country’s many forgotten displaced people and rescued victims from the 2005 earthquake and floods of 2010.

Like Mother Teresa, she was a European nun working for decades among people with leprosy but she thought they weren’t all that similar:

She said her focus was on removing the root of the problem – not just dealing with its symptoms – the same ethos that has served her so well over the years in Pakistan when dealing with poor, displaced and marginalised people.

“The most important thing is that we give them their dignity back,” she insisted.

We need more people in the world like her.

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