While Pakistani media was busy with the rally in the twin cities and a frustrated Nawaz Sharif was sounding war drums, Pakistan’s female Edhi was quietly breathing her last on a bed in Agha Khan Hospital, Karachi.

Her peaceful departure during the loud hullabaloo of the rally reminded me that Pakistan’s strength resides in the work done by heroes like Edhi and Dr Ruth, who spent their life for humanity and the poor and disenfranchised people of Pakistan, and not in the selfish politicos screaming on top of their voices to prove that they hold our destiny in their hands.

Dr Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau NQA, HPk, HI (born 9 September 1929) was a German-Pakistani nun and a member of the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary who devoted the last 50 years of life to fighting leprosy in Pakistan. In 1996, Pakistan was declared by the World Health Organisation to have controlled leprosy, one of the first countries in Asia to achieve this goal. Dr Pfau was born in Leipzig, Germany on 9 September 1929.She had four sisters and one brother. After World War II when the Russians occupied East Germany, she escaped to West Germany along with her family and chose medicine as her future career. In 1949 she studied medicine at Mainz. She was not satisfied with her life. She wanted to do something more: She joined a Catholic order and eventually landed in Pakistan.

In the early days of Pakistan, leprosy was considered a taboo rather than a disease and it was almost impossible to open any treatment centres as lepers were generally ostracised. Four determined people with their own initiative pioneered the work in the slum quarters on McLeod Road Karachi; these included Dr Anne Rochs, Mrs Beatrix Menezes, Sr Bernice Vargas and Sr Mary Doyale. The squalid condition of the Lepers Colony, lack of proper drugs, absence of electricity and water were daunting challenges, but thanks to this small group working for humanity, a small dispensary built by using wooden crates came up.

As per her parent mission’s plan, Dr Ruth was supposed to go to India; however, she landed in Karachi by default in 1960 due to a technical visa problem. She was told to get to Karachi first and then India. In Karachi, she met the Mexican origin sister Bernice Vergas, who was a pharmacist. Sister Vergas invited Ruth to visit the leprosy patient’s colony.

When Dr Roth visited the leprosy patients’ colony, she felt dejected with the situation and took the decision of her life, which would make her the champion of the poor and rejected lepers of Karachi and Pakistan. Having little knowledge about leprosy, she studied leprosy before leaving for India for short courses. Her return from India saw the conversion of the hapless dispensary into a small functioning hospital.

As discussed earlier, leprosy was taboo in Pakistani society, Dr Ruth saw the appalling condition of lepers, people believed leprosy as an evil predicament ordained by God, would leave the patients to Dr Ruth and never visit them. Dr Ruth displayed exemplary care and affection by personal touch and love. She would even make arrangements for the last rites, janaza and burial of abandoned lepers after their death.

Her humanitarian work gradually attracted people of God and some volunteers started becoming part of her team. These included the famous dermatologist, Dr Zarina Fazelbhoy, who till 1997, remained associated with Dr Ruth’s programme and centre. Due to her serious illness, she was unable to continue and expired in February 1999. The small plant planted by Dr Ruth in form of a clinic became a shady tree, an eight story hospital. The programme was expanded to other parts of Pakistan as well.

Dr Pfau would tirelessly travel to far-flung areas of Pakistan for the cause of humanity; managing donations from Germany and Pakistan and expanding the programme at a national level. In 1968, Dr Pfau persuaded the Government of Pakistan to undertake a National Leprosy Control Programme in partnership with MALC (Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre) and began setting up leprosy-control centres across the country.

Gen Zia appointed her as the President’s advisor on leprosy control, an appointment which she held till 2000. In 1988, in recognition of her services, she was awarded Pakistani citizenship. According to Pfau, her suggestions were taken seriously and the government of Pakistan cooperated with her. In recognition of her work for humanity she was awarded with a number of national and international awards including; the Order of Merit (1969, Germany, Sitara i Quaid i Azam (1969), Hilal-e-Imtiaz, Hilal-i-Pakistan, Ramon Magsaysay Award (2002), the Jinnah Award (2002) and the Doctor of Science (DSc), honoris causa, Aga Khan University, Karachi (2004).

By 1989, Dr Ruth expanded her work to Afghanistan, targeting leprosy patients. Her efforts made it possible for Pakistan to be declared leprosy free in 1996.She immensely contributed to the alleviation of hardships of earthquake and flood affected people of Pakistan and Sindh during 2005 and 2010.

Always identifying herself as a Pakistani, she would proudly wear shalwar kameez and live a very simple life. She always maintained that if she were to be born again, she would want to be born in Pakistan.

A glance at the website of Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre shows the message of the founder Dr Ruth Pfau, I will conclude the piece with an extract from her angelic message:

“Dear friends,

Another year has passed, a year with much worry and suffering and defiant and determent continuation of our service, a year in which Pakistan and with it Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre has struggled amidst all law and order problems, refusing to lose hope.

As much as we welcome these developments, one question arises: How should we utilise our remaining facilities, the infrastructure, the knowledge of our professional staff? Seeing all the unmet needs in Pakistan, the services not yet rendered, the shortage of trained and motivated manpower leaves us with the conviction that leprosy control is not the last calling. Especially as leprosy patients are suffering from disabilities which are not cured with simple anti-leprosy medication, and in the same area where they are living, hundreds of other patients are suffering from general disability as well; children, old people, and victims of street accidents. It was only logical to extend our disability service to general disabled people and try to improve their quality of life as well, enabling them to move, to communicate, and to find a meaning in their lives. Thus, “CBR” Community-based Rehabilitation has developed as the second calling of MALC, bringing relief and happiness to hundreds of disabled patients. My message, my prayer and my request of last year has taken concrete shape. May MALC do for the disabled patients what it did for the leprosy patients, change their life from misery to meaning and happiness.”