HIGHLIGHTS

  • She transferred the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC) to a proper hospital building and established a full-service leprosy treatment and rehabilitation center, free to patients.
  • In her far-flung clinics, MALC-trained paramedics identified leprosy victims and drew them into treatment. Multidrug-Regimen chemotherapy, introduced in 1984, offered a timely and effective cure. But PFAU trained her staff always to treat the person, not just the disease.
  • Today, Karachi’s eight-story Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre is the hub of one hundred seventy leprosy control centers, with some eight hundred staff members.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “her lifelong dedication to eradicate leprosy and its stigma in Pakistan, and other loving gifts to her adopted country.”

 CITATION

To all the world, leprosy is a curse. Its power to deform the face and body terrified the ancients and also their heirs. For most of history, leprosy sufferers lived apart, cast away by their frightened brethren to dwell alone or in squalid colonies of untouchables. And so it was in Pakistan when Dr. Ruth Pfau arrived in 1960.

Pfau was born in Germany and in her youth survived the havoc of Nazism, war, and foreign occupation. Amid the ferment of postwar Europe, she became a doctor and found direction in Catholicism. She joined the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, a religious order dedicated to the relief of misery, and asked to be sent to Asia.

Destined for a mission station in India, Pfau stopped along the way in Pakistan. There, in a Karachi slum, fellow members of her order had set up a ramshackle leprosy dispensary named after their founder, Marie Adelaide. Seeing the squalor and suffering, Pfau blurted out, “It can’t go on any more like this,” and halted her journey on the spot.

Pfau quickly reorganized the rough-hewn dispensary into a properly run leprosy clinic, despite the ambient filth and disorder and legions of needy patients. By chance, her efforts drew the attention of the German Leprosy Relief Association, which, along with other German donors, began to provide regular funding.

In two years’ time, she transferred the Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC) to a proper hospital building and established a full-service leprosy treatment and rehabilitation center, free to patients. Volunteer specialists helped her, but Pfau built her staff mainly by training former patients to diagnose and treat the disease and to keep records. Meanwhile, she took note of the home districts of her patients and identified Pakistan’s leprosy belt-the first step in creating a national program of eradication.

In 1968, Pfau invited the government of Pakistan to undertake a National Leprosy Control Programme in partnership with MALC. Soon, she and her team began setting up leprosy-control centers across the country. Pfau traveled to the most remote and rugged corners of Pakistan, making now-legendary treks by horseback and camelback and by foot. In her far-flung clinics, MALC-trained paramedics identified leprosy victims and drew them into treatment. Multidrug-Regimen chemotherapy, introduced in 1984, offered a timely and effective cure. But Pfau trained her staff always to treat the person, not just the disease. She fostered social rehabilitation and worked desperately to remove the public fear of leprosy, making a point of holding her patients’ hands and calmly entering their dwellings for all to see.

Today, Karachi’s eight-story Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre is the hub of one hundred seventy leprosy control centers, with some eight hundred staff members. Leprosy still occurs in Pakistan. But by 1996, Pfau’s efforts had so reduced its incidence that the World Health Organization declared the disease to have been controlled in Pakistan, one of the first countries in Asia to achieve this goal. These days, Pfau’s regional centers sometimes double as tuberculosis or eye health clinics. Meanwhile, seventy-two-year-old Pfau, retired now, is busy helping to feed and repatriate Afghan refugees adrift in Pakistan.

Pfau long ago claimed Pakistan as home. She would like to do more there. “If I could be reborn again,” she says, “I would certainly dedicate myself to women’s rights in Pakistan.” As MALC’s guiding spirit, she reminds people of her own life-shaping realization of many years ago: A leprosy victim, no matter how wretched, has “only one life to live out-one single life, a life just like mine.”

In electing Ruth Pfau to receive the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service, the board of trustees recognizes her lifelong dedication to eradicate leprosy and its stigma in Pakistan, and other loving gifts to her adopted country.

 RESPONSE

Your Excellency President of the Philippines, Members of the Magsaysay Foundation, distinguished guests, trustees, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen: Dear Friends, thank you all for having taken the time out to join us here today. To begin, let me briefly introduce myself: I am a medical doctor, a German, a convert and a nun, by now 72; I have survived Nazi time, World War II, and so far, all the upheavals, riots, terrorist attacks in my adopted. I have slipped into a task which I never planned. I have been very happy in my life and I am still happy, and would do the same if I was to be asked to make my life’s decision once more.

I have an entire collection of signatures – many many signatures, and thumb impressions on sheets of paper and cards, of people who congratulated me to the award – patients, workers, friends from all over Pakistan, and beyond. The workers state proudly that it is “their” award I am receiving in their name. They are all very excited about it, so I was curious what was special about it? Perhaps: that Asia asserts itself. Asserts itself constructively, proactively. The Asian Nobel Prize. I am happy to be able to assist Pakistan in this small way, to build the road to participate in the finding of our own identity.

What has actually made you think of us, the Leprosy Team? Looking back the past 40 years, there seems to have been a special grace with the programme. We did embark to do the impossible – to do the possible, we said in the beginning, what would this be for a challenge? The possible everybody could do. The hut made from wooden crates, in a slum in Karachi where leprosy work started, grew into a National Leprosy Programme, and achieved its goal, leprosy control, after 35 years of hard work across the country.

What makes me genuinely happy and grateful to God, is that this “leprosy control” does not only mean that we gained the victory over a bacillus – this is fairly easily done. Leprosy control meant for us, from the beginning, to be instrumental to change the lives of our patients – to help them to gain back their dignity, taken from them simply because they fell prey to an ordinary bacterial disease.

And while battling for their physical cure and their human dignity, this battle has changed us, too, has shaped our values, our “c.i.”, our corporate identity: the human person is in the centre of our concern. Our priority commitment is for tasks nobody is willing to tackle, and for disadvantaged groups who have no voice.

When we talk today about empowerment, it means to see the beauty and the value of the other. It is an act of love, love which is able to say, “You are precious, precious in God’s eyes and precious to me”. Able to say this in a world where we witness so much strife and hatred and rivalry and denial of the right of people to be different.

You had the courage to recognize with your prestigious award our fairly unknown group. A group upholding that we controlled leprosy. Thanks to modern multi-drug therapy and strategic planning but even more so thanks to loving concern for the patient.

For this I do thank you in the name of all our co-workers. The team is looking towards Manila to find their way of life recognized. Thank you for helping Asia to discover, rediscover, find, cling to, confess its values – values of the intellect and heart. Thanks for strengthening us on our way.

Thank you.

 BIOGRAPHY

The sight was something that Dr. Ruth Pfau had never imagined. Here she was, a medical doctor and Catholic nun from Germany, inside a shed made from fruit crates in a beggar’s colony in the center of Karachi, Pakistan. The shed on McLeod Road served as her congregation’s dispensary for leprosy patients. Before her eyes, one of them was crawling like a dog on his hands and feet. By her reckoning, the man was about her own age—barely thirty. His name was Muhammad Rashid and he had come from the mountains in the north of Pakistan. Around Rashid, Pfau noted, other leprosy patients walked calmly about, “unperturbed . . . as if it was all very normal that a human being had to crawl in such a manner in the dirt.” What alarmed her most was Muhammad Rashid’s own demeanor. He was calm, she said, and his voice showed only dull resignation, “as if things couldn’t have been otherwise.”

“That these people took their condition to be normal, that they had become resigned to such frightfulness was for me the limit in human degradation,” she wrote later. “If they would have shown that they were suffering, then I would somehow have been able to communicate with them. In the postwar years in Germany, people used to say, ‘It can’t go on like this anymore.’ Here, nobody thought of saying anything like that.”

“I found myself in the midst of suffering fellow humans who needed help,” she says. “I felt there were only two possibilities. Either to go home by the quickest route, or to get out of the boat and try to walk on the water. I chose the latter. Today I know that this was the only logical answer.” Her heart pounding, Pfau said to the nun standing beside her, “Berenice, Berenice, it can’t go on anymore like this. We will have to do something to change things!” At that moment, she says, the way her heart behaved was “like when one meets one’s greatest love.” And what changes this love has wrought!

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)