Story courtesy Cincinnati.com
Location: Rohtak, India
Date Of Injury: 2010
The view from the tomato patch on Marycrest Drive in Reading offered a sweeping vista of the west side of Cincinnati. But to Graci Doll, the vision looked as distant as the Taj Mahal. The teenager’s life revolved around her sheltering home, her family, Catholic school and swim team. The world seemed far away.
Then one summer day almost two years ago, while in the patch picking the ripe ones, Graci looked up to discover that the world had arrived on Marycrest Drive.
Walking past, the girl was about Graci’s age, petite while Graci was tall and muscular. The girl’s long black hair shrouded half her face. Graci’s mom had mentioned that the girl was living with the neighbors on Marycrest Drive. The girl was from India. Her first name was Prerna, prayer-na. Her last name was Gandhi.
Graci said hi.
The girl stopped, hesitated, nodded hello. The two talked a bit, then the Indian girl moved past to the end of the street, then entered the neighbor’s house. The next day, Graci knocked on that door and invited Prerna to go on a walk. Up close, Graci noticed that the fall of black hair was a veil, for deep scars on the right side of Prerna’s face, over her eye, cheek, neck, shoulder and arm. Graci had to ask. What happened?
Calmly, for she had told the story countless times already, Prerna began: Some boys threw acid on me.
Graci struggled to process that sentence. Prerna explained: The attack occurred three years before, when she was 13, in her hometown of Rohtak. On June 18, 2011, Prerna and a friend with a scooter were leaving a tutoring class. It was around dinner time. Prerna begged the friend, just this once, to let her drive. The friend sat behind Prerna as they wound through the streets. They stopped for traffic about five minutes from Prerna’s house, and a motorcycle approached, with two older boys aboard. As soon as the bike drove past, Prerna heard and felt a splash. Her blouse turned to ashes. Her skin blanched and bubbled.
Listening to the story, Graci still couldn’t believe it. Boys . . . threw . . . acid on you?
Prerna, smiling through her scars, said a person can go to any market in India and buy a bottle of sulfuric acid, to clean toilets or sinks, for 20 rupees. But sometimes, the acid is a weapon. This happens mainly to women and girls.
Graci asked: What are you doing here?
I’m getting treatment, Prerna said.
The acid caused third-degree full-thickness burns over 40 percent of Prerna’s body. For months after the attack, she lay in a hospital in Rohtak and endured more than two dozen surgeries to graft skin over the burns. Her parents and her doctors told her she was lucky. The procedures saved her life. Unlike many acid-attack survivors, Prerna did not lose her vision or hearing or the ability to speak. But when she could bear to look in a mirror, she did not see a lucky girl.
From Rohtak to Reading
Her family, considered middle class in India, hired tutors to help Prerna finish the high school curriculum. She did especially well in math. But she rarely left her house except at night with a scarf over her face. She could hear the voices: Is that Prerna? Poor Prerna. Who will marry you now? Better you should have died. Sometimes, Prerna wondered if they were right.
Her family went into debt to take Prerna to New Delhi, about 50 miles away, for medical care. But they wanted more for her. An uncle who frequently traveled to the United States found out about the Children’s Burn Foundation, a 30-year-old global nonprofit that arranges medical care for pediatric burn survivors. The foundation pointed Prerna’s family to Shriners Hospital for Children, a burn specialty facility more than 7,300 miles away, in far-off Ohio, in a city with the unusual name of Cincinnati.
A hospital’s slow recovery
The 22-unit Shriners Hospital network, started in 1922, built an international reputation for its medical treatment for children with burns, cleft palates, orthopedic problems and spinal-cord injuries at no cost to patients. The service organization Shriners International raises the nearly $1 billion a year to run the hospitals.
Even before the 2008 recession, Shriners Hospitals across the country were experiencing financial difficulties that threatened some facilities with closure. In 2012, the system’s board of trustees voted to break with tradition and accept insurance from those patients who have it to help with the cost of care.
The Cincinnati hospital is a 30-bed medical haven on Burnet Avenue next door to the behemoth that is Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Inside, the Shriners Hospital lobby is designed to look like a small-town main square, with offices painted to look like storefronts and a playground under an atrium.
Administrator Mark Shugarman, who joined the Cincinnati Shriners a year ago, said the facility had not been immune to the financial hardship that afflicted the Shriners network. The decision to take insurance stabilized the hospital, allowing it to go forward in its mission. “There is a passion here among the staff that is unique and special,” Shugarman said. “That is part of the bloodline of the Shriners. We believe in being openly embracing. We want to take care of you.”
In the spring of 2014, Shriners Hospital agreed to take Prerna. She was 16. But she needed housing, and the hospital put out an appeal. A young couple on Marycrest Drive opened their home to Prerna and her mother, Monika. Heidi and Matt Hudson-Flege showed the new arrivals around the city. Out in the daylight, no scarf over her face, Prerna marveled at the overwhelming American plenty – the diversity of people at Fountain Square, the broad, clean, uncrowded streets, a scoop of Graeter’s black raspberry chocolate-chip ice cream.
“It’s so peaceful here,” Prerna said. “I was very surprised at the behavior of people here, how great people are to each other. There is an equality here.”
Building an ear and an eyebrow
The first efforts at Shriners addressed Prerna’s neck. The skin grafts done in India lacked elasticity and prevented Prerna from turning her head. Half a dozen medical procedures aimed to reduce the rigid scarring on her neck. Then pediatric plastic surgeon Ann Schwentker joined Prerna’s case.
Schwentker travels the world on medical-mission trips, but Prerna was her first acid-attack survivor. At their first appointment, the doctor asked the patient what bothered her. Prerna lifted her veil of dark hair to show the right side of her head, where an ear used to be. Then she pointed to the space above her right eye, where a brow used to be.
To create an ear, Schwentker took a piece of cartilage from one of Prerna’s ribs. The operation was successful, but infection set in, and the graft failed. It was a big setback, but “Prerna handled it extremely well,” Schwentker said. “She’s always looking forward. Her response was, ‘How do we move on?’ ”
Schwentker promised that later, she would build a prosthetic that would attach to Prerna’s head with a post into the bone, like a dental implant.
To fix Prerna’s eyebrow, Schwentker inserted a small balloon under Prerna’s scalp. The balloon slowly expanded the skin, then Schwentker harvested a graft, sliced it follicle by follicle, then over four sessions constructed a new brow. Head hair grows faster than brow hair, so the new brow requires almost daily trimming. “No big deal,” Prerna said.
Shriners Hospital will care for Prerna until she is 21. Schwentker also is using lasers to smooth the burn scars. Eventually, she wants Prerna to see an orthodontist because after the acid burned her lips, her teeth splayed forward.
“She has matured a lot just in the short time I’ve known her,” Schwentker said. “She’s older than her years. She seems very quiet, but she really has quite a voice. She has the potential to make quite a big difference in the world.” The doctor said Prerna reminds her of Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousefzai, the girl from the Swat Valley of Pakistan who survived a bullet to the head fired by a Taliban militant because she advocated education for girls.
After six months, Prerna’s mother returned to India. For the subsequent appointments and procedures, Heidi Hudson-Flege sat with Prerna, held her hand at night in the hospital. She told Prerna that she is beautiful. Prerna argued with her. How can you say this?
The answer came: Because you are.
‘What a richness her story brought’
In Prerna’s first year, her friendship with Graci Doll deepened. Graci brought Prerna to her family’s house, to hang out with her parents and older brother. Graci’s mom Melissa Doll asked Prerna what she did besides go to the hospital. Prerna said not much. She was a little bored. Graci decided she would fix that problem, and she arranged a conference with the leaders of her own school, Mount Notre Dame High School. Graci argued for her new friend: Prerna already had a diploma. She just needed a place to be, with girls her age. Principal Karen Day agreed that Prerna could audit classes.
“We saw goodness in Prerna, and she saw goodness in us,” Day said. “She was going to be in our sisterhood. We did feel like this was a situation where everyone could be for the better. And boy, what a richness her story brought to some of our classes.”
The school convened a student assembly where Prerna’s social worker at Shriners, Donna McCartney, explained Prerna’s treatment. For a few weeks, Prerna followed Graci on her schedule, then she got her own slate and an MND laptop. In a journalism class, Prerna began to put her story down on paper for the first time. She went to a school dance.
Last spring, Prerna was accepted to the University of Cincinnati-Blue Ash and tested into calculus 2. She and Graci celebrated. But then Heidi and Matt had big news, too: Matt got into a doctoral program at Clemson University, so the young couple would sell their house on Marycrest Drive. They proposed bringing Prerna with them for treatment at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Greenville, South Carolina.
But Graci Doll had another plan. She went to her parents and said that since her brother Tony now was living on UC’s main campus, the second floor of their house had a spare room. Prerna, Graci said, should come and live with them.
Scott and Melissa Doll were bewildered. Could they take on another child’s needs? Could they handle the medical challenges to come? They conferred with Prerna’s parents in Rohtak, who were grateful that Prerna could stay in Cincinnati. Prerna would raise money for her college tuition? The Dolls painted the second upstairs bedroom bright yellow, and Prerna moved in.
The mistaken identity
Snug in the warmth of her yellow bedroom, Prerna and Graci studied the worldwide calamity of acid attacks and learned that advocacy groups estimate that at least 300 attacks are reported in India alone. Many attacks go unreported even after the Indian Supreme Court banned the open sale of acid. Prerna and Graci discovered that in recent years, attack survivors in India have banded together to campaign for enforcement of tighter controls on acid.
Part of the campaign is for survivors to come out from hiding. In India, survivors have opened a café, called the Sheroes Hangout, in the city of Agra, not far from the Taj Mahal. Another survivor who lost an eye in an acid attack does YouTube videos demonstrating how to apply lipstick.
Many acid attacks involve a man who has been jilted or feels rejected. Others involve the violent settling of family disputes. For months after Prerna was attacked, her family could not fathom how a 13-year-old schoolgirl would be a target. Her parents asked: Did you know those boys? Did you speak to them? Did you look at them? Prerna felt as if she had to defend herself. No, she had never met them. A year later, the mystery was solved when two young men were arrested in Rohtak for another crime. Police noticed that one had acid burns on his hands. The story spilled out.
A woman relative of Prerna’s friend, the one who owned the scooter, nursed an envy. The relative bought the acid and hired the two young men. On June 18, 2011, the relative instructed them to watch around dinner time for a scooter, then attack the driver. That was the trip that Prerna had begged her friend to let her drive.The men were sentenced to life in prison. The relative served a year then was released.
Word of Prerna’s presence got around to the sizable Indian community in Greater Cincinnati. Dr. Anisha Singh, a Cincinnati internist who has made acid attacks a personal cause, organized an August fundraiser for Prerna at the Atrium Hotel on Tri-County Parkway. A silent auction raised nearly $12,000 for her tuition to UC-Blue Ash. Singh urged Prerna to speak. Prerna was nervous, but the audience was rapt as she read her speech.
“This attack has made me into the woman I am today, a strong, independent young woman who wants to make a difference. Every day is still a struggle, but I strive to live up to my name. I am not the poor girl, not the victim, not the monster, not the girl who wished she had died. I am Prerna, the Hindi word that means inspiration.”
Two days after the speech, Prerna flew home to Rohtak to see her family for the first time in two years. She clung to her parents, cuddled her little brother then wrestled with him over the TV remote. Friends took her out, marveling that she wore short sleeves, baring her scarred right arm. Prerna went to the U.S. Embassy for permission to re-enter the country as a student. In five minutes, she had her visa.
Five days before Christmas, Prerna flew from New Delhi to Paris then boarded an Air France flight to Cincinnati. The Dolls drove to the airport and waited for what seemed like an eternity. Melissa Doll teaches school in the Lakota system. Scott has worked nearly a quarter of a century for Duke Energy. They acknowledged that at first, Graci’s persistence for Prerna surprised them. Now, Prerna belongs with them. The whole neighborhood of Marycrest Drive claims her.
“God has blessed us with an inspiration for how to overcome adversity and be empowered,” Melissa said. “She is the daughter of our heart.”
“She’s a gift,” Scott said. “We look at her as a blessing. We have learned things about the world that we could never have known without her. And we laugh at the same things.”
Scott remembered one night right before Prerna moved in with the Dolls. Melissa asked Scott, “Are you sure?” and Scott replied, “Sweetheart, how could anybody say no?”
Through the throng of returning passengers, Graci strained to see. At last, a flash appeared. Prerna. She was wearing pink pants and silver shoes. Prerna and the Dolls hugged each other. They sat next to each other chattering the whole way home to Reading and Marycrest Drive. Graci, now 18, said that knowing Prerna changed her perspective.
“Before I met her, I wasn’t really aware of what was going on in the world. I didn’t know about the hardship. She has opened my eyes. Now I want to do something to help the world.”
Prerna started at UC-Blue Ash in January. One night last week, she told Melissa and Scott that she had gotten another 99 on a quiz. In English class, she is working on an essay about Malala Yousefzai. And Prerna just found out that sometime this spring, she’s getting braces.