Tree Man: The Cure

Wednesday 25th March at 9:00pm on five

The documentary strand exploring remarkable tales of human experience continues. This edition revisits the story of Dede, the Indonesian fisherman afflicted with tree-like growths on his limbs. A doctor in America has proposed a non-invasive treatment to cure Dede’s condition, but time is running out as medics in Indonesia press ahead with radical surgery.

Thirty-six-year-old fisherman Dede – better known as the ‘Tree Man’ – hopes to find a cure for the illness that has afflicted him for over ten years. Dede’s limbs are covered in horn-like growths and his skin is spotted with warts. His bizarre conditionhas left him unable to work and entirely dependent on his family. “I want to be cured so I can fish and earn money so that I can support my children,” he says.

Help is at hand in the form of Dr Anthony Gaspari, a dermatologist at the University of Maryland. Dr Gaspari visited Dede in his village and took samples of the growths on his body. Test results in America have revealed that Dede’s illness is an extreme form of common warts. “Because Dede does not have a
normal immune system, his wart virus was able to flourish,” Dr Gaspari explains. “It evolved into this massively deforming infection.”

Dr Gaspari recommends a course of drugs to stimulate Dede’s antibodies. However, Dede’s fate is now the concern of the Indonesian government, which has decided to step in following the massive publicity generated by the case. No sooner has Dede received word of Dr Gaspari’s diagnosis than a team of doctors arrives to take him to the local hospital. The president of Indonesia has apparently ordered that Dede receive immediate treatment.

Dogged by a press pack, a bewildered Dede is transferred to hospital, where doctors prepare to embark on radical surgery to excise the growths. “We are determined to remove these warts as soon as possible,” says Dr Rachmatdinata. But the plan goes against Dr Gaspari’s advice. “In an individual with a partly functioning immune system like Dede, surgery does not eradicate the wart infection,” he says. “In other words, the warts come back.”

The minister of health meets Dede in front of the cameras and tells journalists that doctors in Maryland are refusing to take their calls. This view is contradicted by Dr Gaspari, who is desperately trying to contact his Indonesian counterparts. Amid the media circus, Dede quietly submits to the doctors’ will. “I am alone. I feel nervous and scared seeing all those journalists,” he says. Once Dede is declared fit for surgery, doctors begin an exhausting four-hour operation to cut off the horns on his hands. They use a power saw to hack away five kilograms of tissue before removing warts from his head. This procedure is especially tricky as each wart has its own blood supply. The resulting wounds are left to bleed out of their own accord or else cauterised to stop the flow. Back in America, Dr Gaspari expresses his concerns about the aftermath of the surgery: “Wound healing, contractures,scarring, infection, nerve damage – these would be the things I would be worried about.”

Shorn of the growths on his hands, Dede is at last able to grasp objects, although the long hospital stay is wearing him down. “I’ll stick with it even though I am fed up,” he says. However, there are signs that the growths are beginning to return, even as surgeons prepare for a second operation that will see them remove the rest of his warts and graft skin onto his hands. To acquire enough material for the grafts, they insert saline balloons under the flesh of Dede’s back to stretch the skin.

Dr Gaspari finally reaches Indonesia in time to present the doctors with an alternative plan involving chemotherapy. But when the drugs fail to arrive within one month, the surgeons press
ahead with the surgery –only for complications in the operating theatre to put the entire endeavour in doubt. Will Dede ever be cured?

About the author

  • BBC One
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • ITV1
  • ITV2
  • 4
  • E4
  • Film4
  • More4
  • Five
  • Fiver
  • Sky1