A life in the service of humanity

A life in the service of humanity

In memory of Dr. Ruth Pfau

by Rita Brügger

In 2004, a book came into my hands that captivated me and whose content kept vital to me: “The heart has its reasons – my way” from Dr Ruth Pfau. A few days ago, the impressive life’s path of this doctor, nun and peace-maker unfortunately came to an end.

Ruth Pfau, born in 1929, grew up in Leipzig, protected through a large family. The years of the war molded her character and shook her. When her younger brother dies of lack of milk and medecine, the 16-year-old gets almost mad. In 1948, she begins her medical studies in Mainz. In this time, she is always searching for the meaning of life. She cannot believe that in the West the only purpose in life is a beautiful car and a comfortable life. In those years, she tries everything: communism, anthroposophy, student movement, bible circles. She is baptised, gets to know young people, falls in love with a student of theology. The Protestant confession seems to be too austere for her. Therefore, two years later, she converts to the Catholic confession, and, after careful consideration, she becomes a nun of the order of the “Daughters of the heart of Mary,” which had arisen during the French Revolution. In spite of many confrontations and own contradictions, she remains loyal to this order until the end of her life.

By the Order Ruth Pfau is sent to India for medical studies in 1960. During an intermediate stop at Karachi there are visa problems. In the slums, near the station, the young woman comes into contact with lepers and enquires about the medical help for these “outcasts”. In the full knowledge that leprosy can be treated successfully, but that in the big city, everything is missing to help the sick, the doctor staysin Pakistan without hesitation, where she makes it her life mission to eliminate leprosy in this country.

Subsequently, for more than 50 years, as a doctor and fellow human being she has given with untiring commitment infinite much to the country of Pakistan and to its people. Ruth Pfau worked in Karachi at the “Marie Adelaide Leprosy Center” (MALC), a hospital where lepers are treated successfully. Apart from the treatment of the sick, the training of the medical staff was also important to her. Besides, she also built up a nationwide network of leprosy and tuberculosis stations. She consistently traveled with her jeep to impassable areas in order to be able to help patients far away from the cities. This even in old age and despite her own health problems. Then, in 1996, the target was reached and according to WHO leprosy was under control in Pakistan. During her more than 50 years of activity Ruth Pfau has ensured more than 50,000 leprosy sufferers to be treated. From the human point of view, however, this was not enough for her. The misery of men does not cease with the cure of the disease, that was her point of view. Thus, her work and that of the many employees in her team was never restricted to mere medical treatment. Because she knew that the disease in addition to health problems had also social implications, she was working to ensure that former lepers were no longer exposed to isolation and condemnation. She always encouraged the people and helped provide them a meaningful activity which should give them a basis for life. Many of her former patients, after healing, put themselves at the service of their suffering countrymen, thus carrying further and continuing the recently deceased humanist’s great work.

As a convinced Christian, Dr Pfau was always concerned with acting humanely, without wanting to convince the others of her own faith. She treated her fellow men with respect and created conditions to enable them to live a life in dignity, irrespective of religion, status, or nationality. Pakistan is a Muslim country. Hindus have few rights there. Ms Pfau succeeded in living in her hospital a peaceful coexistence of all three religions represented in the country. With her model, she taught her countless employees how to perform real peace building.

The war in Afghanistan entailed further misery. Dr Pfau detested violence, war, terror, as well as injustices, the poorest and especially women had to suffer from. Often she did not understand the rule of the tribal elders in the mountains. For example, she adjured the men, not to impose heavy burdens on their wives. She noticed however that she could not convince them with her western point of view, but that people had to find their own solutions. With her courageous nature and her ability to communicate, she earned great respect everywhere, whether with a simple farmer or in government circles. The increasing flow of refugees from the neighboring country bothered her very much and gave her sleepless nights. Several times, she herself travelled to the border with Afghanistan.

If necessary, Dr Pfau set all the levers in motion, so that humanity and dignity can be lived. She was vehemently committed to justice, even if she had to travel herself to the ministry in Islamabad in order to inform the minister about the fatal situation of the refugees and to ask for help. The earthquakes too, several times bringing Pakistan into a disaster situation, did not leave her mind. Untiringly, she and her team sought relief from suffering. She created contacts in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, spoke to the people and asked for donations. She said with conviction: Already a goat (for ten euros), which can give milk and wool or later meat, secures an entire family’s existence.

Who was ever permitted to get to know Dr Pfau, was impressed by her and delighted about the meeting. Her great charisma was perceptible, and it was clear: Every kind of donation goes as direct aid to the needy persons.

Ruth Pfau leaves behind a big void. On 10 August, when news of her death became known, countless people mourned who had been helped by her, who were close to her and who were touched by her human love. On Saturday, 19 August, after the funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Ruth Pfau was honored in her adopted country with a state funeral as a sign of gratitude and recognition for her great work - an extraordinary honor for a foreign Christian in a Muslim country.

“Death is not the void, but encounter

with abundance. Death is no

limit. Not for love. Love knows no

limits.” (Ruth Pfau)

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