My first introduction to leprosy was from the movie, The Hawaiians, based on Michener’s epic novel. In particular, I remember when the Chinese character, Mun Ki, was sent for lifelong exile to the leper colony on Molokai; and his wife valiantly went along to take care of him.
I watched in horror as the scenes on Molokai unfolded to show a hellish life for the lepers who lived as outcasts, more of an animal existence than human, completely isolated from the rest of the world.
Leprosy, medically known as Hansen’s disease, dates back to biblical times with the first recorded account appearing on Egyptian papyrus in 1550 B.C.
Although today we know that a bacterial infection causes the disease, for most of recorded history, contracting leprosy equated to punishment for sins. Lepers were the virtual outcasts in all societies.
It is easy to understand the fear felt by non-lepers when the sick patient eventually became covered with lesions all over the body, failing eyesight, disfigurement to the face, hands, and feet. The first instinct was to segregate these victims so the disease would not spread.
In 1873, Dr. Gerhard Henrik Armauer Hansen of Norway identified the germ that causes the infection. It would take another one hundred years before the creation of successful drugs brought healing from the disease. Before that, all lepers were shunned, regardless of age, and left to fend on their own.
Many people are familiar with the priest Father Damien, who went to live on the leper colony in Hawaii and minister to the poor souls. He devoted his life to helping the victims of leprosy deal with their disease and brought not only spiritual comfort but advocated for their physical needs as well.
But few people are familiar with Dr. Ruth Pfau.
Ruth was born in 1929 in Leipzig, Germany. In her teens, her family home was destroyed by bombers from WWII, and after the war ended Leipzig fell to Soviet occupation. Her family escaped from East Germany to West Germany, and by 1950 Ruth decided to study medicine at the University of Mainz.
While at the university she felt called by God to become a Catholic. She converted to Catholicism in 1953 and four years later joined the order of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary. In 1960 the Order sent her to India, but a problem with her visa derailed her in Karachi, Pakistan. Waiting for the visa problem to be resolved, she decided to visit a leprosy colony and see if she could be of any assistance.
That visit became the turning point in her life.
Rats and other rodents overran the so-called hospital strewn with garbage and human waste. As a young boy crawled on his hands and knees through the filth to speak to her, Ruth was appalled that humans would be forced to live in these conditions.
She decided then and there that God had brought her to Pakistan to help the lepers.
For the next several years, and for the rest of her life, Ruth worked tirelessly to change the horrid facility into a center of healing. She went out into the Pakistani neighborhoods and rescued children whose leprosy had forced them to live in caves or cattle-pens.
Writing home to advance her pleas for needed medical supplies, Ruth obtained money from various German donors. She used the finances to attract other doctors who would help her and procure the drugs needed to help the lepers of Pakistan.
Ruth never retired. In 2017, she died at age 88, due to a respiratory ailment. Her state funeral was attended by both Muslims and Christians.
Today, in the country of Pakistan, leprosy is officially in submission. I can only surmise that Ruth Pfau is smiling.
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