half man half tree

The series exploring remarkable tales of human
experience continues with a profile of Dede, an
Indonesian man suffering from a skin condition that
has left him with tree-like growths on his hands and
feet. Unable to work and forced to appear in a
demeaning circus troupe, Dede’s only hope lies in
the visit of a dermatology specialist who may be
able to diagnose his condition. Meanwhile, a man in
Romania with a similar affliction undergoes
experimental surgery to cure him.
In a remote village in Indonesia, 36-year-old
fisherman Dede struggles to live an ordinary life.
He has baffled doctors with an affliction so terrible
that he can no longer work or venture out in
public. Dede has root-like structures growing out
of his limbs – branches that can grow up to five
centimetres a year, and welts that cover his body.
The mystery illness has robbed Dede of his
independence and he lives in the fear that the welts,
which first appeared when he was 15, may
eventually cover his eyes and mouth, leaving him
unable to eat or breathe. Dede’s wife left him
because of the disease, and his two teenage
children are now being cared for by his sister.
“I want to be able to provide for them,” he says.
“I hope I live long enough to see my grandchildren.”
But a far more troubling question concerns Dede –
has he passed on his ailment to his children?
Dede’s case has come to the attention of Dr A
Gaspari, a dermatologist at the University of
Maryland. He makes the long journey by plane,
boat and foot to Dede’s village in the hope of
diagnosing his illness. Upon meeting the patient,
Dr Gaspari cannot hide his shock. “I’m absolutely
stunned,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like
this before.”
A physical exam leads Dr Gaspari to suspect
that Dede’s condition is wart-like in nature. The
warts have grown and spread, creating
cutaneous horns on Dede’s hands and feet, and
Dr Gaspari is concerned that they could become
cancerous. “It is life threatening for the patient. It is
absolutely real and requires attention,” he says.
To establish the exact nature of the underlying
infection, Dr Gaspari removes four warts and
takes blood samples. The procedures are carried
out with a basic medical kit on the floor of Dede’s
hut, and Dr Gaspari has to be careful to control
the bleeding from the warts, which have their own
internal blood supply.
With his samples gathered, Dr Gaspari flies
back to the States to begin testing, while Dede
returns to the only job he can keep. He is a
member of a travelling circus clan, alongside other victims of terrible skin diseases and deformities.
The clan’s manager forces them to perform
demeaning and potentially dangerous acts in
front of large crowds. In the face of their adversity,
the clan members have formed friendships based
on their mutual status as ‘freaks’ and outsiders.
After two months of testing, Dr Gaspari
concludes that Dede’s condition is due to an
immunodeficiency. Dede’s immune system is
unable to cope with the warts, which have grown
out of control. “What’s unique about Dede is
probably the extent and severity of the infection
rather than the infection itself,” he says. The test
results indicate that the growths are not
cancerous and that Dede’s children are unlikely to
inherit the disease, and Dr Gaspari has drawn up
a list of drugs that could tackle the warts. Is the
end finally in sight for Dede’s suffering?
As Dr Gaspari opts to treat Dede with a medical
solution, doctors in Romania are attempting to
treat a man with a similar affliction. A farmer by the
name of Ion has wart-like growths on his hands
and feet that have prevented him from working.
But in Ion’s case, doctors have decided to
embark on an experimental five-hour surgery to
peel off the growths on one of his hands. Will this
risky operation succeed?

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