The demise of Pakistan’s “Mother Teresa” Dr Ruth Katharina Martha Pfao has left the nation grieving over this immense loss that still battles with the remnants of humanity left in us. But unlike most unfortunate souls who never got a chance to meet this exceptional woman, Shahnaz Ather’s spell-bounding story fully acknowledges the efforts Pfao put in changing the lives of those in need. Her story not only gave life to the hollow silhouette of Pfao’s person that we had in our minds, but also created for us a living example of a life devoted to serve the needy.
On 8 March 1960, when Dr Ruth Pfao first came to Pakistan at the age of thirty the adversities of settling in a country where the native language was only the first of many struggles, she didn’t know that this would become her final abode.
During her early days in this country, she happened to visit McLeod Road Lepers’ Colony once with Berenice, a pharmacist from Mexico. That visit marked a turning point in Dr Ruth Pfao’s life and the lives to be served by her in future as well. That was when she resolved to stay in Pakistan, as Zia Mutaher puts in his biography of Dr Ruth Pfao, “to serve the unserved and whom no one else would ever serve”.
A few of the survivors of leprosy, The News talked to at the central health facility in Karachi’s Saddar area, attested to the fact that she pledged to make conditions better for these unfortunate deformed individuals whose diseased hands and feet were left to rot at the mercy of rats.
Dr. Pfao treated and trained thousands of patients without any discrimination of race, colour, or religion and thus they evolved as human beings who rose from an abyss of misery to great heights of self-actualization and dignity.
Patients’ recovery was not Pfao’s only concern, she supported the journey of her patients from a place of sub-human torture they received at the hands of society to a destination secure with medical, educational and financial strength and Shahnaz Ather is one of those lucky ones whose lives were turned around by Dr Pfao, thanks to her commitment and dedication.
Shahnaz, has been affiliated with Marie Adelaide Leprosy Centre (MALC) for the last 30 years where she started off as a helpless 11-year-old patient of leprosy. She was referred to Dr. Pfao by some well-wishers in the early stages of her disease and since then has recovered and evolved into a trained professional and a mother of three healthy sons. Her story is nothing short of being called a miracle that was only made possible by Pfao, the living legend.
As an eighth-grade student showing early signs of disability in hands and feet and an affected face, Shahnaz came for help to Dr Ruth Pfao. Unusual white patches had started appearing on her limbs that were worsening into wounds and her hand was gradually losing all strength and becoming disfigured due to the contortion of fingers into an abnormal shape. When she first came to Dr. Pfau her hands had lost grip on even small things like a tea cup and the deformity was slowly settling in. But fortunately she sought help at the right time and took a two-year treatment at MALC where her hand was surgically treated to improve in shape and become functional again.
However, life of a leprosy patient is not as simple as we might think. The medication caused her face to acquire an abnormal redness that lasted the duration of her treatment. During this time not only did she have to quit studies, but was also mocked by colleagues who constantly pestered her with intrusive questions about her condition.
Dr Pfau with Hilal-e-Pakistan Medal
She was preyed at by the insensitivities of our society and being the second oldest daughter in a family left in shambles after the father’s death, she had to become a son for the mother and the sisters. For this reason after completing her treatment she requested a job and kind-hearted Pfao offered her to work at the very organization she was treated at. Her difficulties did not end here as she was placed in Hyderabad and being a woman living in Pakistani society it was not a convenient decision to make. But financial needs at home and constant mentoring by Dr. Pfao pushed her to work without pitying her health, her womanhood, or her poverty.
Pfao’s acknowledgement of her as a human no less than any sane, healthy male empowered Shahnaz enough to take a stand for herself. Even now, while talking to The News, she attributed all her success and well-being to the late Dr. Pfao.
The last day of Dr. Pfau at MALC - Teaching a patient hand exercises during ward visit on 06 August 2017.
Dr. Pfao not only founded MALC to provide free of cost health care to patients but also successfully created an intimate home-like atmosphere that made the patients see it as their second home or maybe even their first. Many like Shahnaz even found their spouses while living in MALC and began their married lives from the nurturing grounds of this place. Now her life is complete with a caring husband and three healthy sons and in-laws that respect her. Her life turned a new leaf after she met Dr. Pfao because she is no longer a young girl affected by leprosy trying to feed four more mouths at home. What this legendary woman did for her and several others is beyond amazement.
Pfau’s contributions to changing the statistics of leprosy in Pakistan are not just restricted to numbers. Her devoted efforts have transformed the conditions of entire families and left the younger generations with an extraordinarily high standard to meet.
May this nation be blessed with more humans like Pfao.