In May 2001, at an endodontic dental conference at Yak & Yeti Hotel, a fair middle-aged man interrupted a casual talk that I and my dentist friend were having and asked us to leave the room “if we wanted to continue chatting”.
We had definitely broken the gentlemen’s rules and had acknowledged our mistake. But since his tone was pretty insulting, I allowed my temper to slip.
“Okay,” I told him curtly before leaving the meeting hall.
That was the time I had just graduated from a dental school in the Philippines and did not know members of Nepal’s dental fraternity. I also had no clue about who the “rude” person was until someone told me he was one of the renowned oral and maxillofacial surgeons of our country.
It may sounds strange, but that was how I met Dr Prashanta Shrestha, who later became my mentor and very good friend. Now, he is no more with us. He succumbed to a cardiac arrest on March 14 at the age of 49.
While he was alive, Dr Shrestha was always a good father, friend and teacher. He was a walking encyclopedia whose wealth of general information was truly surprising. An associate professor in the Division of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at the Kathmandu University Medical School, Dr Shrestha also took great pleasure in writing and has written more than four dozen research papers on oral carcinomas, salivary gland tumors and odontogenic tumors. These papers were published in various journals in the US, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Denmark, Greece, Malaysia and Bangladesh. He was also an author of a book on carcinogenesis and extra cellular matrix proteins in tumors and carcinomas and had co-authored a book on S100 proteins in human tumors, published by Asahi University Publications of Japan.
One of the most remarkable works that Dr Shrestha did while he was living was lead the movement on providing free treatment to people with cleft lip and palate.
Cleft lip and palate are birth defects that create a gaping hole from the upper lip to the bottom of the nose and on the roof of the mouth of babies. Although it can be fixed through corrective surgeries, not many in our country can mobilize financial resources to put their children under the knife. The result: children with the deformity have low self-esteem and live with the stigma of having an abnormal facial appearance.
This is where Dr Shrestha would come in.
He would, of course, charge money from those who could afford the treatment but he never asked for anything from those families that were barely able to make ends meet.
Since 1996, Dr Shrestha conducted around 2,000 cleft and palate surgeries—a record which none other Nepali oral and maxillofacial surgeon has broken so far. After joining hands with Dr Basant Mathema (a renowned plastic surgeon) and Smile Train (an INGO that extends funds to fix the deformity) in 2006, he even started traveling to rural parts of the country, sometimes on foot, to gather patients and conduct surgeries on them. These surgeries not only included fixing split lips and palates, but many other severe deformities in the facial region.
A recent case handled by Dr Shrestha and Dr Mathema included a young girl who had lost her entire upper lip and nose. Her presence would literally send a chill down one’s spine and many public transport vehicles often tried to keep her at a distance. This obviously caused huge trauma and agony to her. But once Dr Shrestha and Dr Mathema put her under the knife, she turned into a normal girl with regular facial features.
We often try to preach that looks are secondary. Yet, few realize that people with deformities often become a subject of bullying at schools or on streets, which affects them at a much deeper level. Studies have also shown that people with attractive facial features are more likely to succeed faster than those with disfigurements. Dr Shrestha realized this very well and was devoted to turning the so-called “cursed” or “monstrous” children into ordinary human beings—free of cost. This way, he was not only implanting lost bits of lips or nose on children with facial disfigurements, but also smiles on their faces.
Based on the belief that every poor child with facial deformities has the right to get a corrective surgery free of cost, he even joined hands with few doctors to open National Dental Hospital in 1997. After its establishment, he became the director of the Oral and Maxillofacial Center and played a key role in turning it into the best dental hospital in the country. But after facing hurdles in fulfilling his dream, he silently moved away and opened his own clinic in B&B Hospital with three doctors, including him and three assistants. That was in 2002. Today, his team comprises 20-plus members and conducts countless free surgeries on people severe facial deformities every day.
His team has, however, has suddenly found itself headless after his demise. Although Dr Mathema, a very good friend of Dr Shrestha, has promised to fulfill his dream, whether he would be able to steer the project forward on his own is a big question. This, however, does not mean I have doubts on Dr Mathema’s abilities. But the point is it is not easy to fill the gap created by the death of a person like Dr Shrestha, who was not only an expert in handling cases of cleft but also severe facial disfigurement caused by motor accidents, physical assault and bullet injuries.
A workaholic, he used to stay up until midnight most of the times working in his clinic.
The last case he handled was of a woman whose face was severely disfigured due to physical assault. He had reconstructed the face extremely deftly and was in high spirits that evening. But a few hours later, a security guard found him unconscious at his desk.
When I reached the hospital on the evening of March 14, he was lying on the bed where he had conducted countless surgeries and given life to those without any hope of surviving. Doctors who were inoculating first aid on him had already lost hope, yet they were trying their best hoping there would be a miracle.
Dr Shrestha would always tell me that he would die in the operation theater before turning 50. He was 49 when he passed away and although he did not die in the operation theater, he was still wearing the oputfit in which he had conducted the operation. Being a special man, he perhaps knew what God had planned for him.
The author is a dentist with Norvic Hospital and Thamel Dental Clinic