A young woman was tricked into drinking acid by her own husband. Seven years later she was given a new throat, stomach and purpose in life.
Popi Rani Das was tricked into drinking acid by her husband in 2009, when she was just 21 years old. Angered that Popi had not brought a bigger dowry to the marriage, her husband had intended to kill her so he could marry again.
About 75% of those who swallow acid die, but Popi miraculously survived. Even with a damaged voice box, Popi was still able to speak. For the next seven years, she suffered from sickness and pain on a daily basis at a ward of the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital, with her entire oesophagus and most of her stomach having been burned away by the clear, odourless and deadly liquid.
On the other hand, her husband has never been charged with the crime despite Popi having filed a police report shortly after the incident, sources from the Acid Survivors Foundation said. The prosecution rate for acid attacks in Bangladesh stands at about 10%.
Dr Toni Zhong, a plastic surgeon and director of the breast reconstruction program at the University Health Network (UHN), met Popi by chance in February, 2016, when the former was in Bangladesh on a medical mission to help women injured in grease fires. After she learned of Popi’s injuries, Dr Zhong realised that one of the few places with the expertise to help the acid attack victim was Toronto General Hospital, which is a part of the UHN.
Dr Zhong then promised Popi that she would help her, though there were many hurdles to overcome. The first step was to gather money for Popi’s travel, medical and living expenses, as Ontario’s medical system does not cover costs for international patients. In this regard, the doctor began the Popi Fund.
After relating the acid attack victim’s story to several potential donors, three families from Toronto stepped forward to help. Through their own donations and by rallying others, the families raised $700,000 in the space of a few months. Donations came from around the world, with German anesthetist Inge Haselsteiner, a colleague of Dr Zhong who was also on the 2016 medical mission, raising about $30,000 with her sister. Members of the Bangladeshi community in Toronto offered to host Popi during her stay, free of cost.
In addition, the surgeons and anesthetists who operated on Popi waived their fees and Toronto General even agreed to open an operating room during off hours.
Popi arrived in Toronto on February 15, meeting Dr Zhong once again nearly two years after the promise was made.
On March 31 this year, in a six-hour operation, Dr Ralph Gilbert and Dr David Goldstein folded an eight-by-10-centimetre patch of skin harvested from her Popi’s forearm into a 3-D tube — essentially a new swallowing apparatus that bypassed her damaged oesophagus. Within weeks, Popi was relearning how to swallow for the first time in eight years.
On Aug 25, Popi had her third and final operation, a combined procedure during which Dr Gail Darling, a thoracic surgeon at UHN, brought the top portion of Das’s small intestine up under her breastbone to her neck, where Dr Gilbert then attached it to the new throat structure. The risky procedure often fails, and had been performed by the UHN only 10 times before Popi’s case, but she beat the odds once more.
Popi now wants to become an advocate for survivors of acid attacks. She wants other women with stories like hers to know they are not alone.
“For seven years, I just struggled in a hospital, in a bed, in one room,” she recalls. “But I have come through that now.”
Popi plans to return to the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital before making further plans for her and her mother. She is eager to see her old friends and celebrate how far she has come since leaving for Toronto nearly one year ago.
The fund that Zhong established in 2016 to bring Popi to Toronto is now a permanent fixture at UHN. Its mission statement says it wishes to help adult international patients in crisis receive life-saving surgeries. Officially, the fund has been named UHN Helps, but for those who started the journey with Popi, it will always remain the Popi Fund.
UHN Helps, otherwise known as the Popi Fund, will officially be accepting new patients in spring 2018. To donate, go to uhnhelps.ca.