How volunteer cosmetic surgeons are changing the face of disfigurements in India

In 2016, retired NHS plastic surgeon Dr Charles Viva led a team of doctors in a two-week initiative where volunteer cosmetic surgeons helped patients improve their quality of life by treating severe disfigurements that they were either born with, developed, or had inflicted on them.

Project Revive, an international collaboration between charities and not-for-profits, aimed to give acid attack survivors and those born with a cleft lip an opportunity to lead a normal life by offering free surgery and treatments provided by volunteer cosmetic surgeons.

Two years on and the mission, which took over an entire floor of the Gurgaon hospital and was funded by individual donors in India, has screened 172 patients, carried out 50 operations and treated 80 people.

Delhi-based Dr Biplav Agarwal, who first conceived and later initiated the project along with Mr Arun Kapur and Mr Vipin Seth in London, explains how the project developed to include other cases.

‘Dr Viva and his team have voluntarily travelled to countries like Uganda, Bangladesh and Pakistan to provide free surgeries for acid attack survivors and this year, we decided to call them to India.

Initially, the plan was to provide reconstructive plastic surgery only for acid attack survivors but, since we plan on providing this treatment to a larger number of patients, we decided to include cases of cleft lips and keloids,” he said.

Volunteer cosmetic surgeons fight back against India’s acid attack scourge
There are an estimated 1000 acid attacks in India every year, and most victims are women (although men were also treated by the volunteer cosmetic surgeons). According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, 8,000 women are killed in “dowry attacks” every year.

“For a preventable cause, the number of people who are burnt is enormous,” says Dr Viva.

“It’s very saddening, but we do what we can and that’s all we can do. We want to help these people who have no other hope.

“In the UK, burns are treated in a completely different way. As soon as a patient is burnt their burns are treated very aggressively.

“But here, unfortunately, the structure is limited – often because of where the patients live. As a result, they go long periods without treatment which is not only very painful for them but can lead to infection and also inevitably results in much worse scarring.”

“Seeing the way we have been able to help people means a lot to me and to the others who have been involved,” he says of his team of volunteer cosmetic surgeons.

People were encouraged to send in photos of their conditions by WhatsApp, email and post to be considered for treatment, with Dr Viva selecting patients based on the severity of their case.

With 10 surgeries, (which could involve skin-graft procedures) scheduled in just one day, it was an intensive and ambitious process for the volunteer cosmetic surgeons to treat burns victims, those born with cleft lips or those with developed keloids.

Cleft lips can cause problems with breastfeeding and lead to problems with speaking and hearing further down the line. There is also a social stigma attached to this very visible condition, which can lead to isolation, low self-esteem and poor social skills.

The bigger picture – how volunteer cosmetic surgeons are making a difference elsewhere
Other medical professionals, such as Dr Sobodh Singh, are also making a difference to those who may otherwise have had to live with similarly disfiguring conditions for the rest of their lives.

From his clinic in Varanasi, the GS Memorial Plastic Surgery Hospital, Dr Singh regularly treats over 80 percent of his patients, many of who are acid attack victims who can’t afford hospital fees, for free.

“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, WonderWork, based in New York, supports local doctors such as Dr Singh with free equipment and financial aid to enable them to carry out their life-changing work.

From the GS Memorial Plastic Surgery Hospital, which was established in 2001, Dr Singh treats around 30 burns and 150 cleft lip patients every year free of charge.

‘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.

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