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Dr Ruth Pfau: Pakistan loses a mother

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In her book, Life is different, Dr Ruth Pfau wrote, “I don’t use the word ‘retirement.’ It sounds as if you’ve completed everything and as if life were over and the world in order.” When the book came out in 2014, she was 84. She continued her work in Pakistan until a few days ago when she died after nearly a week in a Karachi hospital, due to issues associated with her advanced age.

The doctor and nun, who dedicated her life to the eradication of leprosy, has been called Pakistan’s Mother Theresa by many. Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said Dr Ruth “may have been born in Germany, but her heart was always in Pakistan”.

Dr Ruth was born and raised in Leipzig.

In WW2 she witnessed her home being destroyed by bombs. During the GDR she, her parents, four sisters and brother escaped to the West. In the 50s she studied medicine, but merely being a doctor left her feeling unfulfilled. She became a nun and was sent to Southern India. Due to a problem with her visa, she got stuck in Karachi, Pakistan.

It was while traveling through Pakistan that she saw the reality of leprosy. Not only did this disease attack you physically, but the social implications were something out of the dark ages. Families were abandoning their loved ones or keeping them imprisoned in small rooms for life. She decided to try to change this.

Dr Ruth had found her calling. It was 1960 and she was 31.

She set up clinics all over the country, and by 1996 the disease was declared to be under control.

Contrary to what we’ve seen in the movies, leprosy is not a flesh eating disease. It is caused by a bacteria which affects the nerves, skin, eyes and the lining of the nose. People often lose fingers, toes, hands, feet and legs because the nerve damage causes them to lose feeling and they injure themselves without knowing it.

This is not a curse.

It is contagious, although not highly so. You cannot catch it by simply sitting next to someone, shaking their hand, giving them a hug or having dinner together. It is thought to be transmitted through droplets generated through sneezing or coughing. The healthy person needs months of very close exposure to an untreated leprosy sufferer in order to possibly be infected.

The great news is leprosy can be cured today with a course of antibiotics. While this gets rid of the disease, it cannot undue any damage already caused. That’s why early detection makes such a difference.

Administering antibiotics was not the only challenge Dr Ruth was up against. Many patients were left with missing limbs and had to learn new ways of living. There was discrimination to be faced because of this and because of people’s ignorance about the transmission of the disease.

There was also the issue of classism.

Most of the victims were poor. Lack of basic sanitation and poor nutrition led to their immune systems not being able to fight off the bacteria.

Once leprosy was under control, Dr Ruth turned to helping other disabled patients. She also made sure that her clinic gave opportunities to people from minorities. This was something that made the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Clinic an island of equality, since it was not the norm across Pakistan.

“Dr Ruth came 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,” Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said, praising her courage and loyalty. On Thursday, he announced a state funeral for Dr Ruth. This will be held on 19 August 2017, at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Karachi.

She achieved numerous accolades and wrote four books in German. One, To light a candle: reminiscences and reflections of Dr Ruth Pfau, has been translated into English.

I discovered her in her passing and she gave me a gift, something to help me through dark times now and in future. She said, “Chaos never fills 24 hours.” Thank you, Dr Ruth, for the healing.

Maeshelle West-Davies gleans her varied life experiences to expose a personal perspective through a multitude of mediums. Sound, video, photography, dance, performance and public art are the tools she uses to convey her message. Her work is a response not only to a physical journey, but an emotional one, as with all of us who walk along or beside our individual paths.

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