A Canadian doctor’s promise helps a Bangladeshi acid attack survivor Popi Das for a new life
More than two years ago in a overcrowded room on a top floor of the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital in capital of Bangladesh, Popi Rani Das of Kamalpur village under Bajitpur upazila of Kishoreganj district, then 27, had spent seven years in pain and often sick, after her dowry seeking husband, Pradip Banik gave her a glass of acid to drink while sickness on September 7, 2010 night. That burned away two-thirds of her esophagus, some of her trachea and most of her stomach. Since then she could no longer swallow; needed a blender so she could squeeze pureed meals into a feeding tube inserted into her small intestine. Eight times a day she fed herself by injecting a puréed meal into her feeding tube. Doctors in Bangladesh said she had little chance to be better.
Popi refused to believe them. She hoped, one day someone would walk into her hospital room and offer her cherished hope. That person was Toronto plastic surgeon Dr. Toni Zhong. She met Popi by chance while travelling in Bangladesh in February, 2016 on a medical mission to help women injured in grease fires. “I promised her I would take her case to the best surgeons I know. We felt we had to try. She compelled me; she compelled all of us, to go above and beyond for her”. It took a year, but Dr. Zhong fulfilled her pledge. Her first step back in Toronto was to raise money to pay for Popi’s travel, medical care and living expenses in the city as its medical system will not cover costs for international patients, no matter how deserving. In Canada, The Herbie Fund helps critically ill children from disadvantaged countries get life-saving treatment at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital. Thus, determined Dr. Zhong pursued to start one, calling it the Popi Fund. She took Popi’s case to several potential donors, who responded quickly. That vital group, primarily three Toronto families, in turn joined hands of friends and within months had raised $700,000 dollars. Plus, the surgeons and anesthetists who would operate on Popi waived their fees and Toronto General Hospital agreed to open an operating room during off hours, so as not to affect Canadian patients. Members of a local Bangladesh community group offered to host Popi when she arrived in Toronto. Funds even arrived from Germany as Inge Haselsteiner, an anesthetist accompanied Dr. Zhong on the 2016 Bangladesh mission, with her sister raised 27,000 Euros to cover the cost of Popi’s travel, living and medicines in Toronto.Eventually Popi arrived with mother in Toronto on February 15, 2017. Ten months later, last year December 14, she gathered at Toronto General with her medical team and mother Ajanta, for a celebration to toast their many successes and to say goodbye. But the complex trio of surgeries, which were completed in August and included reconstructing Popi’s damaged esophagus using skin harvested from her arm, could not occur easily. Dr. Ralph Gilbert, in charge of head and neck surgery at University Health Network, had never operated on an acid attack victim. But he knew that he could use techniques similar to those he had pioneered to treat patients with complex throat cancers. Together with his colleague, Dr. David Goldstein, the two head and neck surgeons decided to build Popi a new tissue structure at the top of her throat using an eight-by-10-centimetre patch of skin harvested from her left forearm. Besides, a medical team of 20 members consistently dedicated their effort to help Popi normal again all these times.Now, Popi will soon return to Bangladesh. “After I go back home I will always think to myself I had come to this advanced country and this is where my life started again”. As expressed, she would become an advocate for survivors of acid violence as her husband never had been charged by the police for his crime as reported. According to the Acid Survivors Foundation, the prosecution rate for acid attacks in Bangladesh is about 10 per cent. She wants other women with stories like her to know they are not alone. “For seven years, I just struggled in a hospital, in a bed, in one room. But I have overcome that”. She will return to the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital before making further plans for her and her mother. She is eager to see her friends and show what change happened to her.