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Meet Dr Subodh Singh- The surgeon from UP who completed 37,000 free cleft plate surgeries

In testing times when everything seems negative, there are people and moments that give us hope that not all is lost yet. And this time it’s Dr. Subodh Singh from Uttar Pradesh. The plastic surgeon by profession has till date completed 37,000 free cleft plate surgeries(under worldwide initiative Smile Train) to return their kid’s smiles to some 25,000 families.

Dr. Singh’s selfless service to the poor has earned him wide recognition worldwide when he was among the celebrated guests of the 2009 Academy Awards and he was present at the Central Court for the 2013 Wimbledon Men Singles Final between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic when his patient Pinki Sonkar flipped the coin. Cleft palate is a common birth condition that can occur alone or as part of a genetic syndrome. Symptoms include difficulty in speaking and eating caused by the opening of the mouth. 

The great achievements had quite humble beginnings. He lost his father Gyan Singh who was a railway clerk at the age of 13. After his death, the family was facing an economic crisis. He is quoted by The New Indian Express as saying, “Whatever we received as gratuity after my father’s death was used to clear the debt. Along with my elder brothers, I sold homemade soaps and was often insulted when I asked for settling our dues.” The family stayed at railway quarters in Varanasi. His eldest brother got a job with the railways on compassionate grounds and he recalls how he used his bonus to pay Dr. Singh’s medical fees.

Moved by his brother’s sacrifices, he cleared three medical entrance exams in 1983, including the Armed Forces Medical College (AFMC-Pune), BHU-PMT, and UP state Combined Pre-Medical Test (CPMT). Although, he later for BHU to be able to help his mother and brothers run a general store. The first free treatment week started in 2002, to mark his father’s death anniversary, and later in 2003-2004 he became a part of The Smile Train project which is globally the largest cleft surgery-focused organisation and along with his team of plastic surgeons, social workers, nutritional experts, and speech therapists, Dr. Singh prepared an outreach programme to track cleft kids from across the country, especially eastern and northeastern India.

He recalls his journey, “We set a target of 2,500 cleft surgeries by December 2005. The Smile Train India team, while considering our target too ambitious, asked us to go for just 500 free surgeries by 2005-end. We crossed that figure by 2004-end and went beyond 2,500 by the following year-end. Since 2008-09, we annually perform 4,000-plus free cleft surgeries under this initiative.”

Dr. Singh’s hospital in Varanasi has become a major centre where surgeons across the world come to train in cleft lip-palate surgeries where his patients have spanned from three-month-olds to a 76-year-old woman. “When we started this initiative in April 2004, the average age of patients was 10.8 years. Now the average age is one year, which takes us closer to the target of surgically bringing smiles to all cleft children through corrective surgery as early as three months old. He along with his have also performed 6,000 free extensive burn surgeries. His efforts inspired the making of the National Geographic documentary – Burned Girl (2015) that won international awards for detailing the life of nine-year-old Ragini, whose childhood burns were treated by Dr. Singh. 

Another accolade to the list is Smile Pinki (2008), which is a documentary by Megan Mylan based on the project by The Smile Train. The documentary shows how Dr. Singh and his team transformed the life of an underprivileged girl Pinki Sonkar, who also hails from UP and also had a left clavicle. It won the Oscar in the Best Short Documentary category in 2009 with both Pinki and Dr. Singh witness to the Academy Awards ceremony. “We have not only corrected congenital deformity but also reunited families where the husbands abandoned the wives for delivering a cleft baby. Our team has saved hundreds of severely malnourished cleft kids through the focused nutritional support training programmes,” he said and credits his mother, Giriraj Kumari for having taught him to serve the poor and live morally.

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