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Doctor Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau

  • HEATHER KING

She is known today as the Mother Teresa of Pakistan.


pfau1Doctor Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau (1929–2017), German-born physician and religious sister of the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary, devoted more than fifty years of her life to fighting leprosy in Pakistan.

Born in Leipzig to Lutheran Protestant parents, Pfau was one of six children.  The family home was destroyed by bombing during WWII.  Following the Soviet occupation of East Germany, they fled to West Germany and Pfau took up the study of medicine at the University of Mainz.

During that time she met a Christian evangelical woman, a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps who preached forgiveness and love.  Also deeply influenced by Father Romano Guardini's spiritual classic, The Lord, Doctor Pfau left behind a "romantic association" and converted to Catholicism in 1953.  She traveled to Paris in 1957 and joined the Society of Daughters of the Heart of Mary.

En route to India in 1960, she stopped at the Pakistani city of Karachi and chanced to visit a leper colony located in a slum near the city railway station.  The conditions were appalling: no electricity, no water, stinking garbage and sewage water running into open drains.  The sufferers' bodies were so mutilated that, in the words of the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre's (MALC) website, their hands and feet had become "nutritional supplement for rats."

Doctor Pfau's vocation was formed on the instant.  She decided to stay in Pakistan as a health care worker, joined forces with the several intrepid souls already toiling there, and in 1962 helped establish the first MALC: a real hospital building providing full leprosy treatment and rehabilitation, at no cost to the patient.

In 1996, the World Health Organization declared Pakistan a leprosy-free country.

In time, the Centre also came to provide help for those suffering from tuberculosis and blindness.

During the course of her career, Doctor Pfau regularly journeyed to remote parts of Pakistan to help bring treatment to the leprosy patients there.  She trained other doctors and tirelessly raised funds.  In 1968, she convinced the Pakistani government to fund the National Leprosy Control Programme.

In 1996, the World Health Organization declared Pakistan a leprosy-free country.

The MALC now oversees 157 leprosy control centers, with more than 800 staff members.

On August 4, 2017, Doctor Pfau was hospitalized due to respiratory problems.  She refused life support, wishing, she said, "to live a natural life."  Following her death on August 10, her body lay in state at Karachi's Holy Family Hospital.  She was then awarded a full state funeral, the first ever for a Christian in Muslim-dominated Pakistan.  The Mass, celebrated at Saint Patrick's Cathedral and accompanied by a nineteen-gun salute, was broadcast live on Pakistan Television.

The prime minister praised Pfau "for her selflessness and unmatched services."  The Foreign Office issued a statement saying: "We have lost a national hero."

But perhaps Doctor Pfau's highest encomium lies silent, in the hearts of the thousands of leprosy patients for whom she laid down her life.  She is known today as the Mother Teresa of Pakistan.

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Acknowledgement

king Heather King. "Doctor Ruth Katherina Martha Pfau." Magnificat (October, 2019).

Reprinted with permission from Magnificat.

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The Author

king king1 Heather King is a sober alcoholic, an ex-lawyer, a Catholic convert, and a full-time writer. She is the author of: Parched, Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Poor Baby, Stripped, Holy Days and Gospel Reflectionsand Stumble: Virtue, Vice, and the Space Between. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her website here

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