Nine-year-old Ragini shudders as she recounts the horrific evening when she was left scarred for life. The only daughter of her parents – poor farmers from Muzzafarpur, in the eastern Indian state of Bihar – the girl was playing with a three-year-old boy in her neighbourhood when he mischievously poured hot oil all over her shoulder.
‘The pain was unbearable and all I remember is shrieking and screaming for help,’ she says, looking down shyly.
Her parents, not knowing what to do, rushed her to the local hospital, where the girl was given basic medical aid. A day later, she returned home, severely scarred.
‘Once our daughter got better, we began to wonder “who would marry her when she grows up”, says Ragini’s mother.
Ragini was taunted by students in her school, too. ‘There were many who used to mockingly call me “burnt girl’’,’ she says.
But all that changed when last year a surgeon named Dr Subodh Singh set up a free camp in her village.
‘Ragini was one of the first patients I saw there,’ says Dr Singh, 50, who regularly treats more than 80 per cent of his patients for free at his clinic, GS Memorial Plastic Surgery Hospital, in Varanasi.
‘Her scars meant she had restricted movement in her neck as the skin had healed and tightened and she could not look upwards towards the stars.
‘She suffered around 35 per cent burns; her neck and chest couldn’t develop properly due to the scarring. Her body was damaged due to burns and no specialist would help her as the family couldn’t afford it.’
The plastic surgeon set to work on the girl, transforming her life immeasurably. And he did it completely free of cost.
‘When a doctor gives his best to a critical case, many can actually be saved. I just want to be able to help people who need it. That’s the reason I became a doctor,’ he says.
Dr Singh fixed her lower chin, chest, jawline, and some of the scarring. ‘She is now able to develop naturally,’ he says. ‘However, there is still a long way to go. I intend to do more surgeries to remove all her remaining scars.’
But the doctor says that Ragini is still ‘a very mild case compared to what we deal with here on an everyday basis’.
Archana, 28, from a village in Bhagalpur, also in Bihar, is one of Dr Singh’s most recent cases. She was a victim of an acid attack. Archana was told by government hospitals there was nothing they could do, and she couldn’t afford the fees of private hospitals.
But thanks to Dr Singh’s charitable initiative, her face and hands, which were severely disfigured in the attack, are now slowly acquiring a semblance of what they were earlier.
Dr Singh, who is married and a father of two, bought the land for his hospital in 1997 with his savings. Since losing his father to a heart attack when he was 13, he’d longed to improve the state of India’s medical industry. ‘My father had a heart attack and we took him to the hospital but because of the negligence he was left unattended for three days and died,’ he remembers. ‘That has stayed with me all these years and it encourages me to give 100 per cent to my patients every day.’
Dr Singh finally got the GS Memorial Plastic Surgery Hospital up and running in 2001, and he began to hold free camps for the poor once a year. He has since dedicated his life to treating underprivileged patients in India. He treats many types of ailments, but primarily burns and cleft lips. He now treats around 30 burn cases each month, as well as over 150 cleft lip patients free of cost.
Since 2004 Dr Singh has worked with many international charities who fund surgeries for his poverty-stricken patients.
‘When patients can pay, they pay,’ he says. ‘But if they can’t pay I never turn them away. I liaise with the charities I work with and we eventually work something out. No one is turned away.’
One of the charities Dr Singh works with is WonderWork, based in New York, which offers $300 (about Dh1,100) to Dr Singh’s clinic for each ‘big’ surgery.
Instead of sending American doctors on missions, WonderWork empowers local doctors through free training, free equipment, and financial aid. WonderWork concentrates on helping people who suffer from blindness, club foot or burns in developing counties, with 74 programmes and partners in 60 countries worldwide.
The charity says 15 million burnt children worldwide can be transformed through surgery that can separate skin that’s been fused together.
Dr Singh’s surgeries can release a chin that is fused to a chest, and free up fingers and toes, even arms and legs, that have been fused together. This new freedom of movement can be a lifesaver for a child or adult who has been deformed and crippled by severe burns. ‘The surgery costs just $300 and takes only a couple of hours.’
Smile Train, an international children’s charity headquartered in New York, offers free cleft lip and palate repair surgery to children in developing countries, and they also help Dr Singh with his work with cleft patients in India. He was awarded the Smile Train Hero Award, in Baltimore, USA, in 2007, for completing the highest number of free cleft surgeries in the world.
However, it is burn victims that Dr Singh is most worried about. ‘The WHO says women in the south-east Asian region have the highest rate of burns, accounting for 27 per cent of global burn deaths and nearly 70 per cent of fatalities in the region,’ he says. And in India, over one million people are moderately or severely burnt every year.
Dr Singh, who has won several awards for his work, sees burn victims as a real issue in India, especially in rural parts of the country where open fires are a regular part of the day for cooking.
He said: ‘The most common cause for burns in India is the use of oil lamps and mud stoves in rural houses. These poor families do not have access to the legal cylinders and so they use small cylinders that are unsafe. Several deaths have occurred due to cylinder explosions. Every day I witness how poor my country actually is.’
Dr Singh has also teamed up with a group of social workers and volunteers and started a missed call campaign. People who are financially challenged but want to be operated for clefted lip give a missed call to the charity. Volunteers return the call and assist the patients on details of the surgery.
‘It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it when you see a smile on the face of the patients,’ he says.
Flipping through a stack of papers on his desk, the doctor fishes out a set of photos of Ragini. ‘She needs a few more surgeries and then she will be fine,’ he says. ‘I’m arranging for that in the forthcoming months.’