Everyone thought Neehaari Mandali’s life was over when she attempted suicide by setting herself on fire. Not many around her acknowledged the abuse the then 20-year-old had faced from her husband’s family, but cursed her “impulsive” decision to take her own life.
But the universe had different plans for her. Today, Neehaari lives with 55 percent burn injuries, and is working to make this world a better place for herself as well as for those who have suffered the way she has.
She helps people with post-burn deformities undergo plastic surgeries free of cost. Her services spread across Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Kerala.
On a mission
In a conversation with The Better India, Neehaari, now 32, says that even as she works on slowly getting her life back on track, she realises that her battles against her injuries will continue forever.
She says, “The afterlife of a burn survivor is really hard, with multiple surgeries and medication. It requires money, effort and, most importantly, motivation.” She adds that the difficulties of living with her injuries are plenty — on some days, she can’t even hold a spoon in her hands.
While picking the pieces of her own life back up, Neehaari decided to extend her reach to other burn victims, and formed the Burn Survivor Mission Saviour Trust. The organisation, with the help of compassionate groups and surgeons, has supervised 126 operations so far, and conducted over 900 counselling sessions, she notes.
Among those she has helped is Reshma Rajan from Kottayam, who met with an unfortunate accident when she was 17, and survived with 50 per cent burn injuries. “I came to know about the programme through a newspaper report. One out of my three surgeries has been done, and my neck is more flexible now. All this has been possible thanks to Neehaari ma’am and her team,” she tells The Better India.
In 2014, Neehaari met Dr M K Muneer, a physician and politician who was volunteering at a plastic surgery camp being held by the trust in Andhra Pradesh.
In 2017, Muneer invited her to Kozhikode in Kerala to conduct a similar camp, wherein 24 free surgeries were organised. Neehaari says that since then, Kerala has become her second home.
Neehaari’s trust has also joined hands with Pettah Cosmetiq Clinic, Kerala Plastic Surgeons Association and Trivandrum Round Table 66 to perform free post-burn surgeries on 15 survivors from Kerala. “Seven cases are already done and the remaining will be done in a few days,” says Neehaari, who currently resides in Thiruvananthapuram.
She says she receives relentless support from several people in Kerala. “Dr Bibilash Babu and serial actor Anoop Sivasenan play key roles in the current project,” Neehaari adds.
Making the world aware
Post burn surgeries are expensive and not very prevalent, Neehaari explains. So she focuses on helping people with burn injuries who do not have financial stability or are unaware of such treatments altogether. Free surgery recipients are selected based on these factors, as well as their age and burn percentage.
“People have this perception that plastic surgeries are only done on celebrities to enhance their beauty, which is wrong. It is also a significant method to resist the contraction of a burn survivor’s body after wound healing,” explains Neehaari.
According to her, there are enough fully-facilitated government hospitals for fresh burn treatment. But there is no proper awareness about post-burn deformities. Private hospitals provide this service, which most people can’t afford.
To cover this gap, Neehaari hopes to conduct awareness programmes in schools and colleges across.
“I want society to consider burn survivors as normal humans. Also, survivors should seek assistance to get back to ordinary life and find their own identity,” she adds.
Neehaari is currently in search of a job to support herself and her social work.