Her childhood was more war than peace… her childhood was the second world war. Born in 1929, Dr. Ruth Pfau, was four years old when ‘the little wars started’. “We annexed Austria, so when the official war broke out the year was ’45 and I was a teenager,” now an octogenarian, she shares her days of yore.
When in the abode of the protector of countless human lives, the accolades she has received over the years line the walls through which I pass. When we meet, Dr Pfau was up after her afternoon nap, dressed in the traditional attire of the city which has been her home for half a century. The journey she made from Leipzig, her city of birth to Karachi has been nothing short of an ‘adventure’. Serving the helpless and the destitute only arose in her mind during the war. “It was during the war in Germany that I thought I should do something in my life which would give us a little more peace and happiness. I wouldn’t have just liked to run behind any money, for me this was the most important job our generation had to do,” she marks out.
When she came to Karachi, the “town was faced with a lot of problems and didn’t have the infrastructure even to solve the issues,” and that’s how Dr Pfau decided “leprosy is what we could take on.” This was 13 years after Pakistan came on the map of the world, a time when the city had “two million inhabitants and countless refugees with no way to integrate them.”
Qualified as a medical officer, it wasn’t easy for Dr Pfau to leave home. Dictated by a generous heart and soul, the lady has never thought of what she has left behind. “I have always asked myself what have I gained by leaving home,” says the woman for whom it was by no means easy as “in post-war Germany we were trying to get up on our feet too, but I thought they (Germans) could do it because they had an educated youth.” As for here, Dr Pfau felt the people needed ‘somebody to help’.
“Concrete patience needed me as people were in a terrible situation and I was willing to do a job nobody else would have liked to do,” she lets words slip her amidst a gloomy tone marking out how the “question to pursue anything else didn’t even arise.” Coming from a city where the Americans and the British had been bombing, she “was grateful that many of the episodes she faced later in life (in Karachi) she already had experienced during the war.”
The first Out Patient Department for Dr Pfau was inside a ‘jhuggi’. “It was made out of wooden crates on McLeod Road, now I.I. Chundrigar Road. I had a Mexican sister [Sister Bernice Vargas] who worked with me, she was actually working before me in the leper’s ghetto,” Dr Pfau brings to mind the years when she started working with lepers.” Working with leprosy patients, did she ever feel they felt unwanted? “They not only felt so, but they were unwanted; leprosy patients left themselves if their families didn’t push them out because they couldn’t live in a hostile atmosphere so they all cluttered together on McLeod road and begged,” she shares, adding “today you don’t have leprosy beggars”, a feat her relentless efforts can solely be credited for!
At the time Dr Pfau started, “we had about 100 families and when we moved in this new building (Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre) we had about 1,000 who came from all across the country after they heard there was a treatment facility in Karachi.”
All along did she ever felt despondent for the missing role of the government in fighting the disease? “No, I enjoyed the adventure. I tried to include the municipality and asked the doctor who was responsible for the health department to come visit the leper colony so that we could plan out how to fight leprosy accordingly,” but the response she received was one that was absolutely ‘new’ to her. “‘Madam, we don’t have leprosy in Pakistan’ came his reply so I thought if this is the answer from the municipality then I better not waste any time, and start working on my own.”
Dr Pfau repeatedly made visits to her home country for ‘that was where the money came from’. But it was only after the Queen of England came to Karachi that the leprosy ghetto gained prominence. “The public relations handlers wanted the Queen to visit the colony. It was after they wrote an article which was published by a couple of German newspapers that people in Germany knew I was working here,” Dr Pfau shares, how the German Leprosy Relief Association (GLRA) picked it up. “I remember how a doctor who was in charge back then wrote a letter to me, asking ‘how is it possible a German doctor is working in a ghetto and I don’t know about it?'” and from then on the communication between the two made headways and they became good friends. “They (GLRA) still pay considerably; I think about 40% of the budget comes from them,” she reveals.
Till the present day, Dr Pfau visits the wards regularly to meet all those ‘who have influenced her.’ The patients desperately needed the services and that I was able to deliver was the main motivation,” the 87-year-old shares the drive behind her 50 years of selfless work. Visiting field clinics only now, Dr Pfau listens to her team members who want her to stay indoors to escape from the heat. As for her daily routine, Dr Pfau shares how ‘she doesn’t have normal days’. “I play quite a bit of piano for which I didn’t get time earlier. I try catching up with my correspondents, at which I’m slow but I do make headways,” she talks about her workaday regimen. An avid reader, Dr Pfau has also penned four books, all in her native tongue. “I have written books in German and the staff here wants me to translate it, so currently I’m busy translating some of the works,” she voices.
Travelling all across the country, she feels Pakistan is ‘very unique’. “When you see it from Skardu to Quetta, people are so different and each place is beautiful in its own rights,” and as she speaks, she travels down her bank of memories. “The formations of the mountains across the Makran Coastal Highway, the blue of the sea, is really grand, and then on the other hand when you go up north, Gilgit and especially Astore, it’s as beautiful as Switzerland,” and as she speaks, it’s as if she is hiking on the snowcapped peaks as the cold mountain breeze blows across her face.
Dr Pfau couldn’t speak the national language of the country she was in but she knew all along if she wanted to help the patients she had to speak Urdu. “I started with tooti phooti Urdu. I thought I should also be able to speak the language of the patients, but this in no way is sufficient to control the leprosy problem in Pakistan,” she reveals, “but I was always able to find someone in the team who knows Urdu and then I always need someone who can translate it to Pashto, Balochi and Sindhi.”
Dr Pfau, the topper in her class, has a chapter marked out in the world of humanitarian works. An episode that will be bookmarked for others to follow suit.
One accolade which is missing from the walls of the winding staircase is the Nobel Peace Prize, which this generous soul hasn’t received. But has the idea ever crossed her mind? Dr Pfau laughs at the question. “I have enough of the awards, what shall I do with the Nobel?” and the ethos of this woman to give and give some more, without expectations of returns is how her cycle of life has turned out to be.
Originally published in MAG The Weekly: