When Pune-based Dr Deepak Kulkarni went on a cycling tour to Assam, he met 10-year-old Muskan and noticed her neck deformity. Here’s how he, along with Dr Parag Sahasrabudhe, gave her a new lease of life for free.
A group of senior citizens cycled through the steep vales of Arunachal Pradesh in December 2022. Among them is 69-year-old maxillofacial and oral surgeon Dr Deepak Kulkarni, who would encounter an incident that would change his views on life.
The group, who call themselves ‘Young Seniors’, had decided to undertake a 40-day cycling expedition from Koteshwar in Gujarat to Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh. Dr Deepak, who only started cycling a year and a half ago, says the simple sport turned out to be his newfound passion, and he was always keen on upcoming tours. However, due to work commitments, he told the group he would join them from Guwahati for the last lap of 10 days.
It was during this stint that he encountered Muskan, a 10-year-old girl studying at the Swami Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya at Sunpura on the Assam Arunachal Pradesh border. Born with a neck deformity called torticollis, the girl had accepted her fate, until Dr Deepak stepped in, giving her a new lease on life.
“A true work of destiny,” is how the doctor describes the events that unfolded in the coming months.
‘I spotted her in the ninth row at assembly’
Recounting how the cycling group ended up in the school premises, lecturing 250 odd students at the morning assembly on the joys of cycling, Dr Deepak says, “Eight of us who had started our cycling trip from Guwahati were being helped by the Kendra Vidyalaya with respect to our food and stay arrangements. In return, we were asked to share our insights with the children at the assembly the next day.”
The group began enlightening the kids on topics — such as why choosing a sport was so vital to health, how cycling had benefitted them, and speaking about their cycle expedition. Whilst at it, Dr Deepak noticed that while most kids in the assembly would frequently change their posture, turn their heads, etc, one girl in the ninth row sat still.
“It attracted my attention,” he says.
Through the next hour that followed, Dr Deepak paid close attention to her. His 45-year experience as a maxillofacial surgeon told him there was something amiss. “I called her to the front after the talks were over to get a closer look at her neck, which hadn’t moved in the last hour. I was immediately reminded of something similar I had seen years ago.”
When Dr Deepak had just begun practising as a surgeon, a friend had contacted him one day to consult about his two-year-old daughter. “Whilst admitting the little girl into playschool, the headmistress had pointed out an anomaly in the girl’s neck, asking the parents to show it to a doctor. I had helped my friend get in touch with a plastic surgeon at the time, and thankfully, the deformity was just in the early stages and was corrected,” he shares.
Therefore, Dr Deepak was aware that deformities, like Muskan’s case of torticollis, were indeed treatable. This innate condition affects the muscles, resulting in the head tilting towards one side and the chin towards the opposite side.
Contrary to what the girl believed, that it was the fate she had been dealt with, there was a simple corrective surgery that could be performed. He pointed this out to the headmistress at the school, advising her to ask Muskan’s parents to take her to the local doctor.
“The principal said there might not be doctors in the remote village who would be able to handle the case. I then asked them to go to Guwahati, but she was uncertain if they would find the right treatment there. That’s when I said that if the family could come to Pune, I would have Muskan helped free of charge,” shares Dr Deepak.
To give them an incentive to follow through with this, he says he offered to pay for their travel expenses to and from the city. Dr Deepak trusted that his friend and colleague Dr Parag Sahasrabudhe — plastic surgeon and head of the department of plastic surgery at the acclaimed Sassoon General Hospital, Pune — would be able to correct this deformity. A few shared photographs of Muskan’s condition on WhatsApp, and after a few chats between the two doctors, Dr Parag agreed to help Muskan for free.
Thrilled at having been in the right place at the right time, and having left his contact details with the headmistress for Muskan’s family to get in touch, Dr Deepak cycled back to Pune on 19 December along with the group. “There was a part of me that wasn’t sure if the family would trust me completely, but I hoped for the best,” he adds.
Muskan finds her smile once again
Through the couple of months that followed, Dr Deepak did not receive any call from the family, but he did not lose hope. As he thought of the little girl he had seen in December, he hoped he could help. “Thoughts of how she may have to grow up bullying or being flooded with taunts of ‘Who will marry you?’ etc would come to my mind.”
It was in February that Dr Deepak finally received a call from the child’s uncle who asked him two questions: Can you guarantee the surgery will be a success? Is there any risk to Muskan’s life during the process?
“I replied to the first assuring him that we would do our very best, but also telling him that no surgeon could guarantee anything. I also assured him that there was no risk to Muskan during the procedure,” says Dr Deepak, adding that they told him they would travel to Pune in April for the procedure.
“I was happy!” shares the doctor.
While Muskan was scheduled to be operated on by Dr Parag on 8 April, Dr Deepak was intent that the family have all their questions answered and doubts cleared prior to the surgery. So he arranged for Muskan’s uncle to meet the plastic surgeon on 7 April.
In a hospital where the OPD sees an average of 5,000 patients every day, Muskan and her family were given VIP treatment, says Dr Deepak. “I had notified the staff that the family was coming from 3,000 km away based on a trust in me, and I wanted them to be taken care of. They assured me of it. That day Muskan’s uncle had a good chat with Dr Parag, and the family was convinced that they had made the right call by bringing Muskan to Pune to be treated.”
Muskan was operated on the next day, and Dr Deepak continued to visit her all the days that she remained in the hospital for recovery, bringing her painting books to keep her busy. The surgery was a success!
Meanwhile, Muskan’s father who was constantly by her side along with her mother and grandmother says, “We are from a middle-class family in Assam where transportation is very scarce. But when the group came cycling to where we live, we were surprised. When Muskan came home telling us that a doctor had told her he could solve her deformity, we couldn’t believe our ears.”
He adds that it is almost like a dream come true. “When Muskan was a few months old, the maalish lady had noticed the deformity and pointed it out. We had taken her to a doctor, but they had said that Muskan was too young for any surgery just then, and that when she was older, maybe something could be done. So, for us, it is almost like Dr Deepak was god sent.”
But Dr Deepak and Dr Parag say the credit does not go to them, but rather to how things played out.
‘We can only call it destiny’
In the days that followed, Muskan steadily started improving, wearing a neck brace that would promote the right posture. As Dr Parag notes, “During the surgery the only possibility of complication was the chances of Muskan having a double vision as the ocular level changes postoperatively. But everything went smoothly.”
Meanwhile, the cyclists had heard the tale of Dr Deepak’s ‘tryst with destiny’ and how he had facilitated this girl to get help and were keen on seeing the miracle.
Dr Deepak fondly remembers the day.
“We arranged a tea party at a small hotel, where Dr Parag, 40 cyclists from the group, and Muskan and her family were present. We gave her dad the Rs 38,000 reimbursement for their travel and lodging, though they were reluctant to accept it. Everyone expressed their thanks and wonder at the story of how Muskan had regained her posture.”
But what he emphasises repeatedly is how things played out in just the perfect sync.
He adds that today, as Muskan sends him videos of her dancing to the songs she loves, playing, and having a normal life like other kids her age, he feels elated.
“When I spotted her in the school assembly, she stood out from the other kids. While they were gathering around asking questions, she stood in the corner. I knew the congenital condition had psychologically impacted her,” Dr Deepak recalls.
He shares a heartening moment with Muskan when the effects of the anaesthesia started ebbing away. “The first question she asked was: Has neck become straight?” This, he says, pointed to the fact that her condition was deeply rooted in her mind.
“I am extremely happy that God gave me this opportunity to help her. Call it fate, destiny, chance, right timing, or whatever you wish. For me, it will always be a story where I was chosen to help another.”