x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

War victims turn to UAE prosthetics unit for help

A growing number of people disfigured in the region's conflicts are turning to doctors at Al Rashid Hospital in Dubai.

Artificial human parts ready to be used at Al Rashid Hospital's prosthetic restoration unit.
Artificial human parts ready to be used at Al Rashid Hospital's prosthetic restoration unit.

DUBAI // A growing number of people disfigured in the region's conflicts are turning to doctors at Al Rashid Hospital who specialise in building lifelike new eyes, ears, noses, fingers and toes. The hospital's prosthetic restoration unit is the only one in the UAE and one of only three in the Middle East. It is unique in offering custom-made facial and body parts. "Since the recent conflict in Palestine, and also Iraq, we have had patients coming in from there with wounds," said Dr Daril Atkins, a clinical anaplastologist and head of the cosmetic prosthetic restoration section. It has also had patients involved in accidents in neighbouring countries such as Bahrain, Oman and Syria. Although there has been a rise in patients from war zones, most have suffered an accident of some sort, usually traffic or industrial. They include people who have gone blind and are too ashamed to leave the house, construction workers who have been injured at work, people with birth defects, and even children who have lost eyes by accidentally sticking pencils or sharp objects in them. The unit has been operating since 1985 and treats up to 140 patients a year, but those numbers would double if more doctors and patients were aware of its existence, said Dr Atkins. The prosthetic restoration unit differs from a similar department replacing entire limbs, in that what it does is often more for a patient's psychological benefit than practical use.

"We make lifelike restorations for external limbs, such as fingers and eyes, when plastic surgery is ruled out as an option," said Dr Atkins. "The limb is made from silicone polymer and is considered to be passive." A finger will be attached, for example, and look real in shape and colour, but will not function like the other digits. Dr Atkins said the psychological effect is sometimes overwhelmingly positive; some patients quickly come out of depressions. "It has a camouflage effect, to make the affected area look normal," he said. "It is done so as to integrate a person into society, otherwise that person is subjected to morbid curiosity." Despite the existence of the unit, many UAE residents still travel abroad to have the same treatment at great expense. A custom-made eye at Rashid Hospital, for example, will cost about Dh300 (US$82). Yet to get a simple cut-and-fit eye (which means it is generic, and not made specifically to suit the individual patient's socket) in Saudi Arabia, costs about $2,500 (Dh9,175). The UAE Government issues temporary health insurance cards to people who visit the country specifically to receive prosthetic treatments. Dr Ashwaq Hassan, senior medical sculptor in the department, said: "It is important to maintain a good rapport with the patient because follow-up and training on how to treat the affected area is vital." To have an artificial eye fitted in Europe, including transport and living expenses, will cost on average about $11,000, and the same package for the US will cost about $13,000. "The negative aspect is that there is often a language barrier, you are surrounded by strangers, you are not in your own home, and it is difficult to conduct any type of follow-up," added Dr Atkins.

Children, especially, had to replace an artificial eye every six months to a year as they grew, since the socket itself changed size. Issues such as wear and tear, and colour fading also played a role, so patients have to change their prosthetics on a regular basis. "It is like creating a work of art," said Dr Hassan. "Each piece is unique, and has different variations and features. There are some patients who come here and their families don't even know they have an artificial eye." nsamaha@thenational.ae