Written By Anjuli Bhargava | Published with permission from Business Standard
In one corner of Malsi, not far from the deer park and zoo, as one heads up towards the popular hill destination of Mussorie, there is a left turn that leads to a bizarre and incomplete children’s science park.
In the center of the roughly 4 acre space is a copse of wrangled trees – twisted and bent – creating a huge enclosed area as the branches kneel sharply down towards the ground. The world’s largest topiary – the science of shaping of trees – is being created here. A science, he says, that has mostly been confined to hedges and bushes but one he is extending to trees.
In one corner is a gigantic metal eagle doing, well, nothing. I learn subsequently it is one of the five “mega toys” at the park. There are strange tunnels at arbitrary spots that allow you to reach different parts of the park if you have the courage to enter. There are a couple of artificially created water bodies that – since I am here pre-monsoon – mostly seem empty.
If the outside is eerie, the inside is not much better. The rooms and the objects they house are as unfathomable as the external environment. One room is full of thousands of faces (his patients and cases over the years) in white silicone molds. Peer closely and you can tell that they belong to different individuals.
Inside one of the rooms, there is the skin, lungs, head, liver, intestines and various other body parts of his pet python in many glass jars. One jar is full of 200 eggs of the python. There’s a 30 storied wasp nest built by wasps in one corner.
The park is supposed to be both for amusement and education. We are in what is to become the museum. Even in daylight, children and most adults will feel bewildered and scared once they enter the premises. At night, I dare any reader to try.
That’s why once I enter I am inclined to believe what many locals in the area think : that Yogi (his birth name) Aeron, now 80, a plastic surgeon by training and practice and the owner and designer of this bizarre creation is a madman. Who else would try and create such a place ? Why is he doing it ? What is he thinking of ? Does he truly believe this can become a scientific children’s park ?
Burns and Bites Are A Way Of Life
But there’s a second aspect to Aeron that doesn’t allow you to dismiss him that easily that I have been hearing in bits and pieces from locals. Those bits and pieces have led me here. Local organisations and almost everyone I have met in Dehradun have been telling me about Aeron’s work. But nobody quite prepared me for what I finally encounter.
Locals – in fact not just locals but villagers from far-flung areas spanning the entire Himalayan range – come to Aeron for treatment for the last several years. Burn victims from far and wide and anyone attacked by bears, tigers and other wild animals. If you have been burnt – and as I learn an alarming number of small children are burnt regularly in these parts – or have lost part of your face due to an animal attack, your best bet at treatment – and for the very poor totally free – is with Aeron. Even the local and government hospitals in the area redirect the most complicated cases to be under his expertise. There’s a huge waiting list for treatment.
How do so many people and children here get burnt ? I had no idea it was so common. What does he mean by a waiting list ? Can those who are burnt “wait” before they are treated ?
The next hour is spent in him explaining to me how and why burns are so common and how people can wait. Burn victims more often than not are young children – sometimes even a day old baby – who are locked behind in huts after parents leave for work, to fetch water, collect fodder and other chores. To keep warm, often a fire is left on round the clock within the hut. The huts have a hay roof and wooden floors. Pretty young children or old people are left in charge of even younger siblings and babies – often resulting in all kinds of unintended accidents. He tells many times babies slip out of the hands of the grandmother or older sister and into the fire. So it’s not rare for parents to return to find their babies and small children badly burnt or even dead.
Waiting is both possible and inevitable. Patients who can’t afford to pay wait. Deformities in burn victims set in gradually so they can afford a bit of wait. Every time he gets a new patient, he thinks through the line of treatment for a full week before he begins.
Not only do people wait for treatment, they also manage without vital organs. He has just finished treating a 35-year-old woman from the Himalayas (she’d never seen a train line or a train till she turned up in Malsi) whose face had been mauled by a bear (Aeron’s 13th bear attack case) on her left side (bears are usually right handed and tend to attack faces). In the attack she lost one eye, an eyelid, her nose, both lips and part of her jaw. He’d done a series of surgeries on her face but she chose to leave without a nose arguing that she couldn’t waste any more time. “She said she had her lips, could drink tea and smoke beedis. She needed to get back to milk her cows and look after her husband and children”, he explains. “A nose is not essential” were her last words before she left.
For the last 11 years, he runs two-week camps twice a year – along with a team of 15-16 doctors from the United States – in which they treat burn patients for free. They perform close to 10 surgeries a day during the camps. The Americans bear all the costs : they have never seen the kind of cases they see in India and at some level the experience is invaluable.
Roughly 350 other surgeries are done by Aeron (assisted by his an assistant who has been with him over 25 years and one of his sons whenever he can spare time) around the year so a total of 500 surgeries on burn and bite victims are performed in a year (including the camps). “These are the surgical procedures; number of patients is less as one patient can need up to 10 surgeries sometimes”, he explains. Burns like this or bites result in multiple deformities and need a treatment plan.
As a result, over 5000 surgeries have been done in the last ten years or so – each mold is preserved there for anyone to see. They have 10,000 patients on the waiting list for free treatment mostly from remote Himalayas. Of these, six at present are children who were burnt on the day they were born. He’s planning to publish at atlas of 50 patients with the treatment offered and the possible courses of treatment not taken – which others could learn from – but he’s not sure if and when it will happen.
As we are speaking, he summons a case he is currently working on. Accompanied by his wife, a man enters who has no facial features. I can only see two extraordinarily large white eyeballs and a flat layer of skin. I have never actually seen someone like this except perhaps in some photographs in magazines. As he explains the complexity of the case, I am barely listening.
I am very close to tears and Aeron can see my discomfort. He tells me that if these people can live with such burns all the time, I should have the strength to look at them at least once. I pull myself together.
After we finish talking (two hours have passed), Aeron takes me to meet his current patients who are living on the premises. When patients can’t afford to stay anywhere else, he houses them for free. As and when enough funds are arranged, he treats them.
We walk up a shaky staircase (my legs equally shaky) and there are eight or ten beds in a covered shed. Two or three beds are empty but on others there are burn victims who live there with their meager possessions, a few clothes and utensils. I really can’t muster the strength required to go from bed to bed but he doesn’t notice.
He stops next to a large bed. On it there is a tiny dark girl asleep on a white sheet. He pulls off the covers and shows me her legs. Both have been burnt when she was born and are now like stumps as the tissues have stopped growing. A large black fly sits at the end of one leg and I try to flick it away. He tells me she can’t feel it.
I feel tears again sharply pricking my eyes. I fight them back for fear of looking so weak in his eyes. She looks so small, so vulnerable on the big white bed and the future seems to have so little hope that I am heartbroken. I want to ask him if it wouldn’t be easier for her to die but again I lack courage. He ignores me and continues with her story, getting into the medical details of the surgeries – as and when funds are arranged – she is likely to need to live some kind of normal life.
Failure Is A Way Of Life Too
Born in UP’s Muzaffarnagar in 1937, Aeron managed to get into King George’s medical college, Lucknow only on his fifth attempt. Even while studying there, he failed and went back to his village for two years.
After taking over 7 years to finish a four-year degree, he specialized in plastic surgery from the Prince of Wales medical college in Patna in 1971. He was already married with two children by then.
His family lived with his parents as Aeron couldn’t support himself. Getting a job as a plastic surgeon was proving to be impossible as plastic surgery was not a well-known discipline in India then and very few medical colleges or hospitals needed the services of one.
He finally landed a job in 1973 at the district hospital in Dehradun as a plastic surgeon but he had very little work. “I used to follow patients and try and convince them that they could benefit from my treatment back then”, says he. There were no plastic surgeons from Dehradun to Delhi and almost no one could see the value in one, although he says today there are more than 25 plastic surgeons in Dehradun alone.
He was urged to do other medical work but he refused. “I had lived like a beggar, worked like a donkey and wagged my tail like a dog to earn my degree. I couldn’t just do something else!”
Supported by his sister, a successful doctor in the United States, in 1982, he went for a while to the US and met many hospitals and doctors and got some exposure in the field as getting exposure in India wasn’t possible – there were hardly any cases that you came across.
After he returned, in 1982-83, he bought the land (after borrowing some money from his father) where he is currently building the science park – as and when he has some money he can spare for this – and the topiary where we are meeting.
At the time, he lived in a rented house in Dehradun with his wife and 4 children. He converted the main hall of the house into a place where he could do surgeries – partitioning the living space from the work space – and treated whoever came his way. His wife sterilised instruments and the only toilet in the house was shared with patients. Sometimes people paid him and sometimes they couldn’t afford to pay. Even at this stage – in his mid 40s – and although he had four children of his own, Aeron was supported financially by his father.
Once a very poor 8-year-old boy came to him with all of his ten fingers burnt. “He couldn’t eat, tie his pyjama or clean himself”. That’s when Aeron decided he must expand the scope of his work, started doing his treatment at the Malsi property and slowly created a structure under which the homeless or abandoned patients could take shelter and live for some months to be treated. Now – as we meet – a new center “Yogi’s Helping Hand” is coming up – with American funding – near the IT park in Dehradun.
Even now he lives in a small rented apartment in town with his wife, one daughter and one of his sons (two sons are in the US). Any money he has goes into the treatment of the patients and constructing his “dream” park. Mostly, he uses money he earns from patients who pay to treat those who can’t. Sometimes local hospitals offer some support – many redirect patients to him due to his expertise.
No fees are charged from burn patients although he charges other patients who come for plastic surgery. I ask why this favourtism; why doesn’t he charge burn patients. He says the burn patients don’t have the money to pay. “Ameer aadmi jalte hi nahin hain (the rich don’t get burnt)”.
Shaila Brijnath, chairman of Aasraa trust, which works with street and slum children says that Aeron can work “magic” with burn victims and he has worked on many of their children and even babies – cases that no one could or would take. She says he is an “eccentric genius”. That he personally gains very little from this work is evident to anyone who has visited his Malsi property.
His son Kush, a doctor himself, says he once asked his father why he did it. So much time, effort and energy into treating so many who would never pay him back. “He said because he can”, says Kush.
“Didn’t your father, your wife want you to get settled and support yourself at some stage”, I ask Aeron, after we have been through about 50 minutes of the roller coaster his life has been. He’s been adrift for years and he seemed to have achieved none of what the world terms as success : no money, no fame as we know it, no stability and in some way no direction all through.
“Nobody has ever appreciated the way I have lived. Till date, nobody is happy”, he says quite simply. “But when I see my patients leave with a mouth, an eye, lips, a nose or even a smile, I am very very very happy”.
– Reported By Anjuli Bhargava
Published with permission from Business Standard.