February issue 2012
Interview: Dr. Mohammad Jawad, Surgeon Featured in the Documentary Saving Face
Mohammad Jawad first made headlines in 2009 after the British television station, Channel 4, aired the documentary My Beautiful Face. The documentary shared the story of the model Katie Piper, who became a victim of an acid attack, and the surgeon who reconstructed her disfigured face.
Jawad has, once again, been catapulted into the public eye with the recent documentation of his work on acid victims in Pakistan in the Oscar-nominated documentary, Saving Face, co-directed by Pakistan’s Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy.
In a telephone interview with Newsline, Dr Jawad explained how a young boy who graduated from the Dow Medical College, Karachi in 1984 managed to make it big as a surgeon in the UK and, how despite having spent decades abroad, his native country still remains close to his heart.
Q: Do you think Saving Face will win the Oscar?
A: Yes, of course. It’s a great story and it is beautifully told. This documentary is about brave women who have suffered a lot and it ends on a positive note.
Q: How did the film come about? Who approached you and over what period was it completed?
A: After My Beautiful Face was aired in October 2009, I was interviewed by many channels including SKY, ABC, CBS Australia, Channel 5 and Al Arabia with regard to being Katie Piper’s surgeon.
Daniel Junge contacted me after he saw an interview on BBC during which I spoke about my efforts to help burn victims in Pakistan which I had begun earlier that year at Indus Hospital, Karachi. He informed me that he would like to film a documentary on the work I was doing. I met him in Rawalpindi in March 2010 and Acid Survivors Foundation of Pakistan (ASF), an Islamabad-based NGO that helps survivors of acid attacks, provided us with the patients.
Daniel and his Karachi team made a short film over there, came to London for a few additional shots and then afterwards, showed it to HBO, who then gave them the funding to go back and film the entire documentary.
Hence, that was how this entire project began. I believe it was after that, in the second part of this project that Sharmeen came in.
Q: How did it feel to be on camera with your patients? Did you or they feel ill at ease?
A: It did not bother me because I focused on what I had to do, which requires a lot of concentration.The cameras are also set up very carefully so as to not to be intrusive at all.
Q: How much of the acid attack damage were you able to repair?
A: These were women who had been attacked viciously and their faces were left scarred. For instance, the left side of one of the patients, Zakia’s face had melted away completely. It is a challenging job to restore a face back to its original form. This requires multiple staged procedures. It involves resurfacing the scarred area with either their own skin and, in some cases, with artificial skin. Once you see the movie, you will see the extent of damage that had been done to Zakia’s face and the extent to which it has been restored. She was the first patient in Pakistan whose treatment was similar to Katie Piper’s Artificial Skin Repair treatment in London.
We made quite a significant difference in restoring the patients to their original appearance. We have restored their faces approximately up to 70 to 80 percent.
Q: What struck you about the victims?
A: These women are poor and their families also reject them, which is sad. Our criminal justice system also fails them most of the time, which is pathetic. A society in which you can buy judges is a terrible society. Also, in Pakistan, the police often interrupt treatment and they should not be doing that.
Q: Your first high profile case was that of model Katie Piper. She calls you her ‘hero.’ Could you tell us about this particular case?
A: Before Katie Piper came to me I had been operating on hundreds of different types of burns cases such as house fire burns in Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, Greater London. Acid burn is not a problem in the developed part of the world and when Katie Piper came to me in April 2008, this was the first case of acid violence burn in my career.
The surgery was performed in multiple stages and the final surgery took over six hours. Katie responded very well to the surgery and that’s when I felt like I had done something good. Afterwards, I realised that in the future I would like to do more in this regard.
Q: Over what period was Katie ready to face the world?
A: She was brave and decided to tell her story as soon as she had recovered. She began making home videos and Channel 4 began filming her at the end of 2008 and she continued to get better from there on.
Q: As a trustee of the Katie Piper Foundation, what is the nature of your involvement?
A: I encouraged Katie to start this foundation and the idea is to change the public perception and behaviour towards scars and disfigurement and to provide post-burns scar management to sufferers. I attend meetings and also help raise funds for the foundation.
Q: Could you tell us more about reconstructive surgery? In what instances do you agree to accept a case? To what extent can you fix the damage?
A: You have to manage your patient’s expectations in every surgery. Especially in these cases, you cannot offer them the moon. There are limitations and each patient has to understand and accept it is never going to be the same and that he or she is never going to look the same. If they accept that then it will become easier for them.
It’s difficult to answer how much I can help fix the damage as each patient and each case is different. You have to take the functional and aesthetic consideration of each patient’s condition. In order to achieve perfect harmony you have to imagine in your head what the end result could be like and that helps form an attitude. When I approach a challenge like a reconstructive, trauma, burns or cancer case, my aim is to restore to optimal normality. When you achieve that normality then you have achieved your goal for the procedure.
Q: Approximately how many acid victims have you treated across the world? What are your more heartrending stories of acid victims?
A: Whilst working as a burns surgeon, I have treated hundred of patients but apart from Katie Piper’s surgery and a few cases in which acid was splashed on someone’s face, there was nothing major. Since 2009, with the help of Depilex Smileagain Foundation (DSF) and ASF, I have treated over 40 cases so far in Pakistan. I have performed these surgeries at the Indus Hospital, Karachi which has provided absolutely free services to these patients.
Q: Do you feel doctors in Pakistan are sufficiently qualified to deal with acid attack cases and help burn victims?
A: Pakistani doctors are perhaps the best craftsmen in the surgical world. However, without adequate funding these services cannot be provided.
Q: What about the emotional scars of victims of this nature? How do you help rehabilitate these victims back into society?
A: I believe that is the biggest challenge and we need to work and help them with support and care and justice.
Q: While, on the one hand you’re helping burn victims, on the other hand, you’re doing nip and tuck surgeries. Does it feel like you’re going from the sublime to the ridiculous?
A: I’m a plastic surgeon who does a lot of aesthetic surgery. I do a lot of boob jobs, tummy tucks, face-lifts etc. As plastic surgeons, we are trained to do a lot of procedures including aesthetics. We may narrow our interests later on, but we all have a wide range of skills and experience.
Q: You left for the UK in 1989. Have you ever considered moving back to Pakistan?
A: My love and romance with Pakistan is a deep one. I nearly moved back in 2010 to join Aga Khan but, unfortunately, it did not work out.
This interview was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Newsline under the headline “Healing Scars.”