Acid attack victim finds hope 12,000 km from home

“I want people to learn and be aware of acid attacks. Thanks to the work of Dr. Gilbert, Dr. Zhong and everyone in the hospital, I have a strong, clear voice to tell my story,” says Popi.

Popi's care team at Toronto General Hospital (L to R): translator Tanazzum Kaiser, surgical lead Dr. Ralph Gilbert, Popi Rani Das, speech pathologist Elana Aziza and social worker Shobah Sawh. (Photo credit: UHN News)
Popi's care team at Toronto General Hospital (L to R): translator Tanazzum Kaiser, surgical lead Dr. Ralph Gilbert, Popi, speech pathologist Elana Aziza and social worker Shobah Sawh. (Photo credit: UHN News)

At only 21 years old, Popi was left for dead after she unknowingly drank a glass of clear, odourless acid given to her by her then-husband, who felt the dowry she paid was no longer enough. Despite all odds, Popi survived the attack. But she suffered debilitating burns to her airway, throat, esophagus and stomach – leaving her unable to eat, drink, taste or speak.

For the following eight years, Popi lived in the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where she underwent 10 corrective surgeries, with little improvement. Relying on a feeding tube inserted into her stomach for sustenance, and on her mother for company, she survived, barely breathing, for nearly a decade.

That is, until an expert team at University Health Network (UHN) changed her life, thanks to Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation’s UHN Helps Fund.

It was a chance encounter in the dark, windowless corner of the hospital where Popi lived that connected her with Dr. Toni Zhong, Director of the Breast Reconstruction Program at UHN, and Belinda Stronach Chair in Breast Cancer Reconstructive Surgery. Dr. Zhong, on a humanitarian mission to treat burn victims in Bangladesh recalls, “She was a shadow of a person, thinking that nobody could help her. I knew that if I did not do something then and there, then nobody would. I also knew that I had strong teams back at UHN who could help her.”

But it wouldn’t be easy. Even if the world-leading experts at UHN could complete the surgeries Popi needed, it was expensive endeavour.

Popi’s journey to Toronto

An intensive fundraising campaign for the UHN Helps Fund raised the funds needed to pay for Popi’s hospital expenses while at Toronto General Hospital (TGH), thanks to generous community support, including leadership gifts from La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso, Policaro Automotive Family, and Gary and Donna Slaight. In addition, all of the surgeons and anesthesiologists who operated on Popi agreed to donate their services for free, and the Bangladesh Minority Rights Alliance would act as the local host for Popi and her mom, providing housing, food and transportation to and from the hospital.

When Popi and her mother, Ajanta, arrived in Toronto on February 15, 2017, Popi weighed less than 80 pounds, was severely dehydrated, malnourished and had no winter clothes.

Popi’s lead surgeon, Dr. Ralph Gilbert, Department Head of Head and Neck Surgery, is one of the world’s foremost leaders in rebuilding the face and neck of patients using blood vessels, bone, tissue and skin from other parts of their body. “How could you say no to someone living in that environment? We always want to help. That’s our culture,” he says.

Dr. Zhong adds, “If anyone could do this, it was Dr. Gilbert and the team of surgeons, nurses, speech pathologists, social workers and other clinicians who work with him and his patients. He has that rare combination of chutzpah, technical skill and heart.”

Popi’s first surgery took place less than 10 days after she arrived in Toronto. The two-hour surgery, performed by Dr. Gilbert, used a minimally invasive laser with a microscope to precisely cut away the built-up scar tissue in Popi’s airway, enlarging it from the size of half of a straw to near-normal size, that of a quarter. Dr. Gilbert also used this as an opportunity to assess the full extent of damage the acid did to Popi’s throat and esophagus.

The second surgery Popi underwent was the reconstruction of a new throat. Working with Drs. Gail Darling and David Goldstein, Dr. Gilbert took skin from Popi’s forearm and shaped into a tube around a stent, forming a connection from the back of her mouth to where her esophagus would be.

The third and final surgery was to build Popi a new esophagus, connecting her small intestine to her newly created throat. The final reconstruction took about seven hours and is only performed in the world’s most highly specialized centres on patients who have had a traumatic injury to their esophagus, forcing them to use a feeding tube for nourishment.

Dr. Gilbert examines Popi following her final surgery at TGH. (Photo credit: UHN News)
Dr. Gilbert examines Popi following her final surgery at TGH. (Photo credit: UHN News)

Heading home

“We were elated at how well it all functions together. Basically, we recreated most of her digestive system,” says a smiling Dr. Gilbert. He notes that Popi will not need further medical intervention after she leaves TGH and returns home to Bangladesh in the next few weeks. “Popi has a will to survive and to live in the face of adversity, which is remarkable. That spirit drove all of us to help her,” he says.

Shoba Sawh, the social worker who has been helping Popi overcome her trauma and become independent again, agrees. “I have seen astounding progress in Popi. She has found her voice, and wants to use it to tell her story and help other women. She is ready for a new phase in her life,” she says.

Speaking through a translator, Popi nods her head in agreement. “I think if my story gets out, it will help a lot of people. I want people to learn and be aware of acid attacks. Thanks to the work of Dr. Gilbert, Dr. Zhong and everyone in the hospital, I have a strong, clear voice to tell my story, and for the first time in years, I can now taste and eat my favourite chocolate cookie!”

The goal of the UHN Helps Fund is to provide life-transforming surgeries to patients from the developing world unable to receive them in their home countries. The Fund helps bring patients to UHN for care and sends UHN doctors and surgeons to help patients in their home countries. These doctors provide their knowledge and skills free of charge to the patient, and surgeries always take place in operating rooms not scheduled for use by any Ontarians.

With your gift to the UHN Helps Fund, you can help provide life-transforming surgeries to patients from the developing world.

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