Prema Dhanraj was eight when a stove on which she was making coffee burst and the flames leapt up to swallow her face. The oldest daughter of Rosie Stella Dhanraj and C S Dhanraj, Prema was a beautiful child with dark almond eyes and chiseled features. But on that fateful day in 1965, within seconds, her face had melted into a mass of flesh.
Prema was admitted to Christian Medical College Hospital (CMCH), Vellore, with 50 per cent burns. Seeing her first-born battle for life, Rosie made a pact with God. "If you save my child, I vow to dedicate her to the service of your people. I will make her a doctor and work in this same hospital," she prayed.
Apparently, God bought into it. Prema survived. Dr L B M Joseph, renowned surgeon, painstakingly reconstructed every inch of Prema's face. "It was excruciatingly painful," recollects Prema. "I used to be angry with the doctors all the time." She hated the doctors and the sanitized white walls of the hospital. She wept over the loss of her long hair. Joseph bargained with his tantrum-throwing patient: "If you allow me to treat you, I will give you my hair". Prema was soon convinced. "At that time I didn't realize that he was irrevocably bald," laughs Prema.
After six months in the hospital, Prema returned to Bangalore, her hometown, to resume school. Her scarred face attracted attention; it baffled, confused and embarrassed people. School was never the same again. Prema completed high school privately.
"My family had hidden all the mirrors in the house. Only after a year I happened to catch a reflection of my face in a mirror. I cried. I was angry. I threw tantrums. My mother waited patiently for my tears to dry." Then she told Prema, "This is your face and you will have to live with it. No one can change that. But what you do with your life is in your hands and only you can change it." It was a hard lesson to learn. And it took her long time to grasp its meaning.
"I barely scraped through my Class 10 exams," Prema reminisces. "But the fact that I cleared my exams gave me immense confidence." She obtained a B.Sc. degree from the Arts and Science College, Bangalore. Prema admits, "Those were the most difficult years of my life -academically and socially."
Between 1965 and 1971 Prema underwent 14 surgeries reconstructive surgeries before she put an end to it. "It was time for me to concentrate on other things in life."
Prema obtained her MBBS degree from Hubli Medical College and in 1980, she went to work at CMCH, Vellore, under Joseph. It was a defining moment in both their lives. Prema specialized in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery from CMC, Ludhiana, and returned to CMCH in 1989 as a surgeon, thus fulfilling her mother's promise to God. Today, she is the Head of the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, CMCH, Vellore.
Prema is known as one of the most successful surgeons in the medical fraternity, with a success rate of 99 per cent. A recipient of many awards, Prema considers her stint at the Shriners Children's Hospital, Galveston, USA as the most memorable one. "Children feel encouraged and confident once they see me and hear my story," she says.
Currently, she is helping to set up the first burns unit in Ethiopia, which has the maximum number of burns victims in the world. Prema was invited by the Ethiopian and Norwegian authorities to train doctors in Ethiopia and she trained Ethiopia's first plastic surgeon. She has also pioneered a programme in collaboration with USA - the 'Smile Train' project - where all patients with cleft lip and cleft palate will be given free treatment at CMCH, Vellore. She is further involved in training doctors from Kenya and Tanzania. Her first Kenyan student will arrive in Vellore by October 2005.
Prema agrees that bitterness and anger were a part of her life for a long time. "My mother taught me how to channelize my negative emotions in a positive manner." Today, Prema's only regret in life is that her mother is not alive to witness her success in life. "She would have been happy and proud."
However, today those dark days are behind her. She has made peace with her Creator and is thankful for the way her life has turned out to be. "If not for my accident I wouldn't have achieved so much in life. I have got more than I bargained for. I never thought that I could reach far in life with my face. But God changed everything." Even today, her patients are taken aback when they see her. But soon, her face becomes a source of encouragement and confidence. They feel that if she can do it, so can they.
Prema has embarked on an ambitious project called Agni Raksha - an organization that would treat and help burns victims in India.
Does she miss having a husband or companion in life? "Not at all. Also, I don't want to be tied down at this stage in my life because there's much work to be done." Prema's advice to all those who feel defeated in life:
"Stop comparing yourself with others. Be willing to face reality and move on in life. Develop a cheerful attitude. Be humble and trust in God. Then sit back and enjoy life."
Prema says that all her dreams have been fulfilled or nearing fruition. Yet, she has one last dream left. "I should have a quick death and when people see me they should say, 'Oh, she looks so beautiful and peaceful'. I want to look more beautiful than I am now when I meet my Lord." She sure will. One of her patients puts it in perspective: "All that is striking and beautiful is not always good but that which is good is always beautiful."