Friday, January 15, 2010

In Memoriam: Dr. Zilda Arns

One of the victims of the earthquake in Haiti was Brazilian doctor Zilda Arns Neumann, sister of Dom Paulo Evaristo Arns and founder and coordinator of the Pastoral da Criança ("Children's Pastoral"). Dr. Arns has been called the "Mother Teresa of Brazil." This obituary from The Telegraph (1/14/2010) gives the details:

One of 13 children, Zilda Arns was born to devout German-speaking parents in rural southern Brazil on August 25 1934. Two of her earliest memories were of seeing her father go door-to-door on his horse to help contain a smallpox epidemic and watching her mother arrange for a sick neighbour to be taken to the nearest hospital on the back of a cart, a journey of three hours.

Those selfless acts inspired her to contemplate life as a doctor, even though most of her siblings became priests or teachers.

Having studied Medicine, she graduated from university in 1959, working in local hospitals tending to infants; she was then given charge of a string of clinics on the impoverished outskirts of the southern city of Curitiba.

Zilda Arns quickly saw that many common ailments were preventable, and began teaching mothers basic pre- and post-natal care, as well as useful tasks such as sewing and cooking. It turned out to be the perfect preparation for work that would make her famous.

In 1970s Brazil, the Roman Catholic Church ran a few Pastoral Commissions – organisations designed to offer support and spiritual guidance to marginalised groups such as landless peasants, prison inmates and migrant workers. In 1983, with the encouragement of her brother, by then a bishop, Zilda Arns was asked to set up the Children's Pastoral.

She took to the role with gusto, expanding her work in the clinics. Much of it was elementary stuff, but it was new to millions of uneducated mothers. Under her guidance, and with the help of trained volunteers, they were taught the importance of vaccinations and nutrition and shown how to spot and prevent potentially deadly ailments such as diarrhoea and dehydration.

In one of the most successful and copied moves, the Pastoral distributed millions of plastic measuring spoons to help prepare sugar and salt solutions to combat diarrhoea. Another key initiative was the monthly Celebration of Life day, on which babies are weighed to check they are growing satisfactorily. All of the work is faith-based.

"I felt like God was calling me to take on my life's mission," Zilda Arns said. "I knew if we did it right we could save millions of lives."

Her decision to rely on the Roman Catholic Church was vital, because Brazilians – and especially the poor – trust people of faith more than they trust people in government. As a result the Pastoral's volunteers get access that state health workers might not.

Today, the Pastoral is one of Brazil's best-known organisations, and Zilda Arns was one of the nation's best-known faces. The organisation is present in 42,000 Brazilian communities, with 260,000 trained volunteers attending to 1.8 million children under the age of six. In communities where the Pastoral is present, the infant mortality rate is 11 per 1,000 births; in Brazil overall it is 22.5.

At the age of 75, Zilda Arns was too fragile to run the Pastoral on a daily basis; but she continued to visit communities across Brazil as well as many of the 20 countries into which it has expanded. She was in Haiti visiting a missionary organisation when the earthquake struck.

In 2004 she set up the Pastoral for the Elderly, and her leadership of both brought her dozens of awards, including several nominations for a Nobel Peace Prize.

She suffered her own tragedies, too. Her firstborn child died at just three days old, and her husband, Aloisio Neumann, drowned while rescuing a girl from rough seas in 1978. One of her five other children died in a car accident in 2003.

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