| Kalipada Bhattacharya. Picture by Amit Datta
The British imperialists took away his freedom in the 1940s, but Indian doctors did worse in 2000 — put the 77-year-old man under the knife nine times, cut off half his tongue, removed part of his lower jaw, inserted a Ryles tube, conducted a tracheotomy — all to tackle a cheek ulcer which, experts insist, did not need such radical surgery.
When Kalipada Bhattacharya, a retired central excise officer, turned up at Medical College and Hospital some weeks ago after nine failed surgeries, he couldn’t eat or drink or speak. The ulcer, for which he had been operated upon, had recurred and endless failed reconstruction attempts had given his face a frightful twist. “We admitted him in hospital, traced the whole surgical story and then deliberated amongst ourselves what to do with the case,” recounted reconstructive surgeon Sandipan Gupta.
The freedom fighter and Netaji follower, who was jailed several times in the lead-up to Independence, first complained of a burning sensation inside his cheek and difficulty in swallowing food in 1996. He contacted a renowned oncologist of the city.
The case was then referred to Thakurpukur Cancer Hospital, where a test revealed that Bhattacharya was suffering from “infiltrating squamous cell carcinoma”, or cancer. He was advised surgery, which he underwent at a private hospital, where the ulcer from his cheek was removed. A post-operative biopsy did not reveal any malignancy.
The surgeon did not conduct any reconstruction surgery and, instead, used sutures to seal the gap in his jaw. Just when Bhattacharya thought things would return to normal, the ulcer recurred. This time, the surgeon did not carry out pre-operative biopsy, removed the ulcer and carried out a skin grafting inside the cheek to close the widening gap in his jaw. The flaps created by the reconstruction attempt failed and soon gave way.
There was more agony in store for Bhattacharya. After a year, the ulcer recurred for the third time and the cancer surgeon now went in for an “extensive surgery”, removing part of the tongue. Another variety of flaps to cover the open left jaw went awry, as they fell off within weeks. “We have grown up on tales about the torture inflicted on our father in prison, but this was too much,” said younger son Probal.
“We were financially wiped out. We live on his (Bhattacharya’s) freedom-fighter pension fund and my son’s earnings. We had lost everything by the time the surgeons asked us to go home and not disturb them again. His sufferings seemed endless. Is this what a follower of Netaji deserves'” demanded wife Sati.
After nine surgeries, which also saw a Ryles tube being inserted into his mouth and a tracheotomy done to enable him to breathe directly from the throat, Bhattacharya was finally taken to the plastic surgery unit of Medical College and Hospital.
“The Ryles tube had been inserted for a year and the patient could not eat or drink on his own,” said Sandipan Gupta. A team of plastic surgeons then got down to work and created a special flap to cover most of the widening gaps on his face. The Ryles tube was removed and various corrective measures taken. “The flap was prepared by taking skin, muscles and blood vessels off half of Bhattacharya’s scalp, leaving the forehead intact,” Gupta explained.
A series of investigations revealed that Bhattacharya’s ulcer was a case of “verrucous carcinoma”, a type of cancer which modern oncologists believe needs radiotherapy sessions after an excision, which would explain the repeated recurrence. After a week’s rest, Bhattacharya is back in his Uttarpara home and is now recuperating. He has started to speak slowly and eat and drink on his own.