Dr Ruth Pfau Image Credit: Source: Facebook

Islamabad: Dr Ruth Pfau, hailed as the ‘Mother Teresa’ of Pakistan for her extensive battle against leprosy, passed away at the age of 87 in Karachi. She died during surgery at the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre on Thursday.

Pakistan is mourning the loss of the German nun and doctor who spent 56 years in the country to help treat leprosy patients.

Dr Ruth Katharina Martha Pfau was born in Leipzig in 1929 and saw her home destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.

As a young woman, Pfau studied medicine, joined a Catholic sisterhood and later specialised in the treatment of leprosy, a disease which causes discolouration of the skin, sores and disfigurements.

Arriving in Pakistan from Germany in 1960, she was deeply touched by the suffering of leprosy patients in Pakistan and decided to stay back to serve them. She was granted Pakistani citizenship in 1988. Dr Pfau spent most of her life rescuing disfigured and distressed children who had been confined for years by their parents, who were frightened that they were contagious.

Ceaseless struggle

The Pakistani lepers’ advocate trained Pakistani doctors and attracted foreign donations, founding Pakistan’s National Leprosy Control Programme and the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre.

It was due to her ceaseless struggle that Pakistan became leprosy-free in 1996.

The words of a former leprosy patient, Bundu Sheikh, resonate with most of her patients: “She is not just a doctor, not just a mother, but a messiah.”

Dr Pfau received numerous accolades for her services, including the prestigious Hilal-e-Imtiaz in 1979, Hilal-e-Pakistan in 1989, Life-time Achievement Award from the President of Pakistan in 2006 and the German Staufer Medal in 2015.

Dr Pfau also won praise for her efforts in helping the victims of devastating floods in south-western Pakistan in 2010.

She wrote four books in German about her work in Pakistan, including To Light a Candle, which has been translated into English.

Tributes pour in for Ruth Pfau

Dr Pfau was remembered for her selflessness and devotion to leprosy patients.

Paying tribute to her services, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi said, “Dr Ruth Pfau may have been born in Germany, [but] her heart was always in Pakistan.”

“She 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. We will remember her for her courage, her loyalty, her service to the eradication of leprosy, and most of all, her patriotism,” he said.

Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain described Doctor Pfau’s death as a great loss for the nation.

“Dr Pfau’s services to end leprosy in Pakistan cannot be forgotten. She left her homeland and made Pakistan her home to serve humanity. Pakistani nation salutes Dr Pfau and her great tradition to serve humanity will be continued.”

Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan said he was saddened to learn of Dr Ruth Pfau’s passing. “Her spirit of selfless dedication leaves a void that will be difficult to fill” he said.

Pakistani senator Sherry Rehman‏ said: “She came to Pakistan 56 years ago and spent her life looking after the diseased and dispossessed. We owe you a debt of gratitude, Dr Ruth Pfau.”

Fatima Bhutto, Pakistani writer and granddaughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who met Ruth Pfau in Afghan refugee camps in Karachi, recalled: “In the 1965 war the German embassy wanted to evacuate her back to Germany, she refused. ‘Pakistan, mere dil ka mulk’ (Pakistan lives in my heart) she told me.”

In a statement, German Embassy Islamabad said: “All staff members of the German embassy are deeply saddened to hear about Dr Ruth Pfau passing away. She was a symbol of selflessness and devotion to leprosy patients.”