Image Source: https://www.newindianexpress.com/
He was a meritorious student, who along with his studies also sold goggles and washed soaps to support his family in Varanasi in 1979. Today, Dr Subodh Singh has earned fame as a plastic surgeon by performing free corrective surgeries (under the worldwide initiative Smile Train) on kids born with cleft lip/palate. Till date, he has brought back smiles in the lives of 25,000 families through 37,000 free cleft-palate surgeries.
Cleft palate is a common birth condition. It can occur alone or as part of a genetic condition/syndrome. Symptoms arise from the opening in the mouth, causing difficulty in speaking and eating. Dr Singh’s service to the poor has earned him wide recognitions: he was among celebrated guests at the 2009 Academy Awards and the central court for the 2013 Wimbledon Men Singles Final.
He had lost his father Gyan Singh, a railway clerk, in February 1979 – possibly due to inadequate medical treatment). “In every cleft child who has come to me, I have visualised that little Subodh, who lost his father when he was only 13. My father Gyan Singh and mother Giriraj Kumari (she died last year) taught me to serve the poor and live ethically. I feel God made me a plastic surgeon and not a businessman to serve a divine cause,” says Dr Singh.
After his father’s death, the family faced financial crisis as they lived in small railway quarters in Varanasi. Dr Subodh vividly remembers those difficult days. “Whatever we received as gratuity after my father’s death was used to clear the debt. Along with my elder brothers, I sold homemade soaps and was often insulted when I asked for settling our dues,” he recalls. A few months after my father’s death, his eldest brother found a job in the Railways on compassionate grounds, but the family’s finances were far from satisfactory.
In 1982, when his brother employed with the Railways received his first bonus of Rs 579, he used it to pay young Subodh’s fees for medical entrance preparations. Moved, Subodh decided not to let his brothers’ sacrifices go in vain and cleared not one but three medical entrance exams, including the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC-Pune), BHU-PMT and UP state Combined Pre Medical Test (CPMT) in 1983. He opted for BHU so he could help his widowed mother and brothers run a general store.
Journey of smiles
From 2002, Dr Singh began a free treatment week to mark his father’s death anniversary. He started performing corrective cleft surgeries from 2003-04, became a part of The Smile Train project (globally the largest cleft surgery-focused organisation). “We set a target of 2,500 cleft surgeries by December 2005. The Smile Train India team, while considering our target too ambitious, asked us to go for just 500 free surgeries by 2005-end. We crossed that figure by 2004-end and went beyond 2,500 by the following year end,” says Dr Subodh. “Since 2008-09, we annually perform 4,000-plus free cleft surgeries under this initiative.”
With his team of plastic surgeons, social workers, nutritional experts and speech therapists, Dr Singh prepared an outreach programme to track cleft kids from across the country, especially eastern and northeastern India. “We have not only corrected congenital deformity, but also reunited families where the husbands abandoned the wives for delivering a cleft baby. Our team has saved hundreds of severely malnourished cleft kids through the focused nutritional support training programmes,” he said.
Malda (West Bengal)-based labourer Kartik Mondal remembers how Dr Singh and his team saved his five-month-old severely malnourished son Sonu before correcting his birth time cleft lip-palate deformity. “A government hospital in Kolkata refused to treat my son and asked us to wait for surgery. But Dr Singh and his team in Varanasi gave him a new life. The doctor is a god to me and my family,” says Mondal.
Dr Singh is a global trainer and speaker under the Smile Train initiative. His hospital in Varanasi has become a major centre where surgeons across the world come to train in cleft lip-palate surgeries. “When we started this initiative in April 2004, the average age of patients was 10.8 years. Now the average age is one year, which takes us closer to the target of surgically bringing smiles to all cleft children through corrective surgery as early as three months old.” His patients have spanned from three-month-olds to a 76-year-old woman in Bihar.
The Smile Train project went on to inspire the making of a 39-minute documentary, Smile Pinki (2008), by Megan Mylan in 2008. The documentary shows how Dr Singh and his team transformed the life of an underprivileged little cleft girl Pinki Sonkar (from Rampur Dabahi Village of Mirzapur, East UP). It won the Oscar in the Best Short Documentary category. Both Pinki and Dr Singh were witness to the historic moment at the Academy Awards ceremony in the US in February 2009. Four years later, in Dr Subodh’s presence, Pinki Sonkar was bestowed the honour of flipping the coin for the pre-match toss of the Men’s Singles Final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic at Centre Court of Wimbledon.
Dr Subodh and his team have also performed 6,000 free extensive burn surgeries to reactivate lives of serious burn patients. His efforts inspired the making of Burned Girl (2015), the National Geographic documentary that won international awards for detailing the life of nine-year-old Ragini, whose childhood burns were treated surgically by Dr Singh.
In Dr Singh’s presence, his patient Pinki Sonkar was bestowed the honour of flipping the coin for the pre-match toss of the Men’s Singles Final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic at Centre Court of Wimbledon.