The Burn and Plastic Surgery Unit of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital has been shoved into the limelight thanks to the continuous arson attacks that has left hundreds injured and proved fatal for many. Diligent doctors of the burn unit, as it is more popularly known, are working day and night to provide help and care to the arson victims in addition to other fire victims who are ready to travel long distances to get treated here.
The violence seems endless, as does the list of arson victims admitted daily at the Burn and Plastic Surgery Unit of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. The 100-bed hospital wing currently accommodates over 300 people, many of them victims of the ongoing political violence. A chance visit to the burn unit of the hospital will present you with a chaotic scene; nurses running around with saline packets in hand, ready to provide first-aid to the steady influx of patients being admitted to the hospital; doctors attending patients, trying to be patient as they answer the questions of family members of arson victims; and patients occupying every space available in the already overflowing hospital wing.
The current violent political situation of the country has doctors of the burn unit working around the clock. Dr Kazi Imran Ahmed is an excellent example of a doctor devoted to his job of treating patients. The doctor was already in the hospital for almost 24 hours when we spoke to him, and he said that he was ready to spend another day there if he was required.
“There is a bed in my office, as I am not sure when I'll be called back to duty. I don't want to have a negligent attitude towards my job, as I'm committed to the work I'm doing, and even my family is aware of that,” says Dr Ahmed.
Suchitra Chowdhury travelled all the way from Hobigonj to Dhaka for treatment of burn injuries incurred from a kitchen accident. Even though she didn't suffer serious burns on her body and could possibly be treated at a hospital nearer her town, Suchitra braved the ongoing violence to avail what she calls the “best treatment in the country” at the Burn and Plastic Surgery Unit of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
Like Suchitra, burn victims from all over the country prefer to get their treatment at DMCH's burn unit instead of going to any other hospital, as they feel confident that their injuries, no matter how big or small, will be treated with utmost care and attention.
This complete devotion to one's work could be seen when we visited the burn unit for a quick interview with the project director of the unit Dr Samanta Lal Sen and other resident doctors who contributed to the efficient running of the overloaded department. Unsurprisingly, even as we waited to speak to the famed leader of the unit, Dr Sen was busy attending to a police officer injured after a cocktail bomb was hurled at him.
The Burn and Plastic Surgery Unit of DMCH started as a project in 1986 under the tutelage of late Professor Shahidullah. Interestingly, the expansive building where the unit is currently housed was initially a slum which was later removed and a 50-bed burn unit was built in 2003. The project started with a limited number of doctors and nurses and with only a handful of senior plastic surgeons, including Dr Sen and Professor Shamsuddin, among others.
1.5 million people suffer burn injuries every year for different reasons but there was no single place which was fully dedicated to treating them, says Dr Sen. The Burn and Plastic Surgery Unit was built with an aim to alleviate the sufferings of burn victims who couldn't afford expensive medical care and unthinkable fees charged by private hospitals.
“I wanted to be a named cosmetic surgeon at the beginning of my career. I wanted to make people look better, but my vision changed after I joined the unit and witnessed the suffering of the poor people who found it physically difficult to even talk about their immense pain,” says Dr Sen.
The soft-spoken doctor argues that even though a number of burn units have opened up in other parts of the country, people feel most confident in seeking treatment from DMCH. Burn specialists have joined units in Chittagong, Rangpur, Faridpur and other districts but patients are ready to travel all the distance to avail the treatment provided by the burn unit at DMCH.
“A woman called me from Rangpur saying that her 80-year-old mother had accidently burnt herself and they didn't know what to do, as the woman was too old to travel all the way to Dhaka. I informed her that there was a burn unit in the Rangpur government hospital and that they should seek treatment there instead of forcing the aged lady to travel the distance. Surprisingly, the woman didn't even know that such treatment was available in her district itself,” exclaims Dr Sen.
People need to be made aware of the fact that there are burn units in their districts, says Dr Sen. It's unacceptable that people from Rangpur have to come all the way to Dhaka for treatment. The first 24 hours after a victim incurs burns are the 'golden hours', as they are the most crucial to a person's life. It'll be difficult for doctors to treat them afterwards, if they don't get the right treatment within those hours, says Dr Sen.
He further adds that the doctors and administration of units of each district should pass on the message and aware people of the existence of a burn unit within their area. Knowing that they will get the same kind of treatment in a hospital nearer their town as they would at DMCH is bound to increase the confidence of victims and their families and maybe even save many lives, says Dr Sen.
Doctors should enter this profession with a feeling of devotion and sacrifice, as otherwise they'll never be able to give their patients the treatment they deserve, says Dr Sen. Citing the example of Dr Ashrafuzzaman, an Associate Professor of the burn unit who has been with the hospital for over 25 years, Dr Sen says that doctors need to have a commitment that prevents them from running after money.
“I couldn't bring people's confidence in our wing in just a day, it took me years. There weren't many people supporting us when we started this project but now people all over the country know me. I tell everyone that I didn't attain this position in just a day, it took me a lifetime of hard work, which is why I'm known all over the country,” says the doctor.
Stressing the importance of prevention, Dr Ahmed says that it's important to raise awareness among people on how to avert domestic fire accidents. By simply tying their sari's anchal around their waist or making sure that they don't go too near the fire, people can escape the fate of being a fire victim, says Dr Imran.
“When I went on a training to Bangkok, I was surprised to see that they had only one patient admitted in the six-bedded burn wing of the hospital. I even suggested that they should come over to our country to see how overcrowded our hospitals can get but they declined the offering, stating that they would not be able to handle such a scene if they encountered it on a daily basis,” says Islam.
As the wing is overflowing with burn victims, especially since the brutal fire attacks on people during hartals, patients can be seen lying patiently, without complaint on the grounds with their attendants and family members sitting beside them. But this is far from an ideal situation, says Dr Sen.
“These are burn victims and their injuries are extremely sensitive and vulnerable. But they have to lie on the bare ground because of a lack of space and unfortunately, there's very little that we can do about this. However, we are planning to turn this unit into an institute. At the present we have around 25-30 plastic surgeons in the country but we need over 500 surgeons who are ready to commit themselves in treating these traumatized victims,” says Sen.
Dr Sen also argue that there should be a good burn unit in every medical college, as that would help reduce the pressure on the Burn and Plastic Surgery Unit of DMCH. He also says that doctors should practice in places out of Dhaka, as only then will we able to improve the medical treatment facility of our country. Moreover, he adds, it would prove to be more economically and financially viable, as patients in the capital city are wont to seek treatment from senior doctors rather than go to fresh graduates. Setting up a temporary practice would work wonders for their reputation as well as increase the number of patients visiting them.
“When I used to work in villages, there were no cell phones, cars or other luxuries that would improve our stay in those places. I used to travel by boat! Now you have the whole world in your hands. What prevents our young doctors from practicing in villages and other towns now?”
In a scenario where the medical profession is often accused of blatant commercialism and putting financial gain above patient's wellbeing doctors like Dr Sen and his team give us inspiration. They are individuals with incredible courage and superhuman perseverance that drive them to help patients with the worst possible injuries and save their lives.