Doctor who was Saint of Smiles

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By JAIDEEP HARDIKAR
  • Published 18.11.11
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Nagpur, Nov. 17: A life bound to a wheelchair, with speech inability and two heart attacks, would not seem like much of a life. But doctor Sharadkumar Dicksheet proved it wrong.

In over four decades, Dicksheet performed over 2.5 lakh facial reconstructive surgeries for free. Until this winter, that is. He died on November 14 in Brooklyn, US. He was 81.

Dicksheet has two daughters and a son from two marriages, neither of which lasted.

What lasted was the faith of hundreds of patients, mostly children, who came to him with cleft lips and eye deformities. To their families, the India-born American plastic surgeon is almost God. The “saint of smiles”, they called him.

Since the launch of his India Project in 1968, the doctor would come to his home country every winter for six months, holding free medical camps across India despite being dependent on a wheelchair and a voice box for mobility and communication.

This winter was the first in 43 years when the doctor did not turn up.

“We were waiting for him to come next month for his annual camp,” said Ramesh Pokarna, a journalist with Marathi daily Lokmat in Aurangabad who was associated with Dicksheet for many years. Every year, he would celebrate his birthday on December 13 by inaugurating a camp in the Marathwada town. “It’s extremely sad he’s no more but he’ll continue to inspire us.”

Dicksheet was one of six children of a postmaster, born in Wardha district on December 13, 1930. He studied medicine in Nagpur and briefly served in the army. Dicksheet moved to the US in 1959. Trained to be an ophthalmologist, he switched to plastic surgery, moved by the plight of patients with facial deformities he saw at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.

In his medical camps, mostly children with cleft lips and other facial deformities would queue up. Dicksheet would diagnose a patient in less than a minute and give a date for the surgery. He would spend nine hours in the OT doing about 50 surgeries every day, with just one break for lunch.

Four patients would lie anaesthetised and the doctor would wheel around, fixing their deformities simultaneously. A cleft lip took 15 to 20 minutes, drooping eyelids five to 10, crossed-eye defects barely three.

“Few have used their own hands to help so many people,” wrote Joshua Weinstein, a US-based filmmaker whose documentary, Flying on One Engine, profiled Dicksheet’s life.

A recipient of the Padma Shri in 2001, his name was recommended for a Nobel. But he said the smile on his patients’ faces, “that’s my big prize”.

Dicksheet lived off social security in the US but raised money for free surgeries in India. He would fly down with his instruments every winter.

Before 1978, the doctor skied, played tennis and also sang on the radio. But that year in Alaska after a car accident, his right side became paralysed for life. He learnt to operate with his left hand then.

He was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 1982. It took five years to partially get back his speech but he had to depend on a voice box lifelong.

In 1994, the doctor suffered a severe heart attack. Everybody said he should quit. Another attack followed in 2002. He didn’t stop even then.

As a child, Dicksheet once saw Gandhi at Sevagram. He later said: “I did not understand his philosophy of life that service to God is through service to human beings, not in a church or a temple, until I was older.”