Acid attack survivor who got life-changing surgery in Toronto wants to make Canada her home

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Every day for a year, from the confines of her tiny hospital room in Bangladesh, Popi Rani Das dreamed of Toronto.

A doctor from this faraway city had promised its surgeons could repair the life-threatening wounds in her throat caused by a horrific acid attack that left her unable to drink or eat.

Popi Rani Das has found a new home in the city’s Bangladeshi Hindu community, which has embraced her since she came to Canada to have her esophagus repaired after her husband tricked her into drinking acid.“I am safe here,” Das, now 30, says in her soft-spoken and tentative English. “I am OK here now.”
Popi Rani Das has found a new home in the city’s Bangladeshi Hindu community, which has embraced her since she came to Canada to have her esophagus repaired after her husband tricked her into drinking acid.“I am safe here,” Das, now 30, says in her soft-spoken and tentative English. “I am OK here now.”  (Steve Russell / Toronto Star)

Das was just 21 when her husband tried to kill her by tricking her into drinking the acid that burned away her entire esophagus and most of her stomach. For the next seven years, she lived in a top-floor room of the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh, keeping herself alive by injecting pureed food into the feeding tube threaded into her small intestine.

Then, a chance meeting in February 2016 with Dr. Toni Zhong, a Toronto plastic surgeon on a medical mission to the country, gave Das hope that she would one day escape her bleak surroundings.

“I remember feeling so much sadness for this woman,” recalls Zhong. “I remember thinking: ‘This must be what it is like to be a forgotten person in a small corner of the world.’ ”

Das did come to Toronto in 2017 and, following a trio of risky surgeries at Toronto General Hospital, can once again eat and drink.

Now, two years since she arrived in Toronto, scared, weak and weighing less than 80 pounds, Das, 30, wants to make Canada her permanent home.

It was here, after all, that surgeons gave her another chance at life by building her a new esophagus using skin harvested from her arm.

She has also found friends and a new kind of family in the city’s Bangladeshi Hindu community, which has rallied around her since the freezing February night she arrived at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

And, most importantly, living in Toronto keeps Das safe from her husband, who she says wanted her dead so he could remarry for a bigger dowry. Police charged him for the attack, her lawyer says, but he was released on bail and Das fears he will try to find her should she return to Dhaka.

“I cannot go back … That is where my life is not safe and where my life could be in danger again.”

Read More:

A Toronto doctor promised to help this acid attack survivor. One year later, she’s leaving Toronto with a new esophagus

Acid attack victim finds hope in Toronto surgeons

Acid attack: From victim to triumph in India

Though she misses her country, especially its constant warmth and her friends at the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital, Das is learning to love Toronto.

She enjoys her ESL classes, riding city buses and eating Oreo cookies, the everyday things that once seemed so impossible from her Dhaka hospital room.

“I am safe here now,” Das says in her soft-spoken and tentative English. “I am OK here now.”

Popi Rani Das, with her mother, Ajanta Rani Das, who hasn't left her daughter's side since the attack that left her unable to eat or drink.
Popi Rani Das, with her mother, Ajanta Rani Das, who hasn’t left her daughter’s side since the attack that left her unable to eat or drink.  (Toronto Star)

Das filed a refugee protection claim last February and is waiting for her case to be heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

Her mother, Ajanta Rani Das, who travelled to Toronto with her daughter in 2017 and who has been by Das’s side since the day she was attacked, has also made a claim. Both women say their lives are at risk in Bangladesh.

Douglas Lehrer, their Toronto-based immigration lawyer, says he has affidavits from Das’s maternal aunt and from a neighbour stating Das’s former husband is “threatening to kill them out of revenge.”

Lehrer says the immigration board, which is currently taking between six and 24 months to hear claims, must believe the women would be in danger in Bangladesh — and that the state would be unable to protect them — to grant them protected person status, thus putting them on the path to Canadian citizenship.

For now, Das is trying to put her immigration status from her mind and focus on her daily life in the city.

These days, she and her mother live in a basement apartment in Scarborough, where they enjoy cooking in their small kitchen, planning trips to the library and going for walks around their Birchmount Park neighbourhood.

Both women adore the big white flowers that bloom on bushes growing near their street and which remind them of their village in Bangladesh.

During her first year in Toronto, Das saw little more than hospital rooms, doctors’ offices and the apartment she shared with her mother near Toronto General. Much of her time was spent recovering from surgery, relearning how to swallow with her new esophagus, and finding strategies to deal with the post-traumatic stress triggered by her husband’s attack.

Popi Rani Das, right, shares some cake with Dr. Toni Zhong at a party thrown for Das following her successful surgery at Toronto General Hospital.
Popi Rani Das, right, shares some cake with Dr. Toni Zhong at a party thrown for Das following her successful surgery at Toronto General Hospital.  (Toronto Star file photo)

Zhong, director of the breast reconstruction program at Toronto’s University Health Network (UHN), says few people would have the strength to endure the hardships Das has faced.

That inner courage was one of the reasons Zhong felt compelled to help Das by raising more than $700,000 to start the UHN Helps Fund to bring international patients to Toronto for life-changing surgery. A portion of that money raised paid for Das’s medical care in Toronto, as well as her travel and living expenses.

Zhong also convinced Toronto General to open its operating rooms after-hours for Das, and the surgeons who performed the complex surgeries waived their fees, so as not to impact Canadian patients.

Though Zhong is happy Das is well and safe in Toronto, a part of her is also disheartened that Das will not return to Bangladesh to advocate for survivors of acid violence, something both women had once badly wanted.

She says she didn’t fully understand the risks Das faced until she was again in Dhaka in January of this year for another medical mission. There, she says, she met people who know Das who believe the young woman’s decision to stay in Canada is the right one.

“They told me: ‘There is no doubt that if she came back she would be a target, for her husband or just in general because (after earlier media stories) she has a celebratory status and she spoke out for herself.’ ”

The renowned doctor has many hopes for Das. Some, including a chance to eat and drink, have already been fulfilled. She also believes Das lived through her ordeals to make a lasting impact on the world.

Popi Rani Das stitches to pass the time at the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2016, where she lived for seven years until coming to Canada for surgery.
Popi Rani Das stitches to pass the time at the Acid Survivors Foundation Hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2016, where she lived for seven years until coming to Canada for surgery.  (Toronto Star file photo)

“She shouldn’t have survived that initial attack,” Zhong says, adding that 75 per cent of people who swallow acid will die. “Popi is an incredibly strong person who can make a difference. I don’t know where or how she can do that. But my hope for her is that she will find a way to tell her story and to live a meaningful life with this gift she has been given.”

Arun Datta is among the dozens of people in Toronto’s Bangladeshi Hindu community who have helped Das since she arrived in the city. He says he didn’t hesitate for a moment after Zhong’s 2017 phone call, during which she asked for their community’s support.

Within days of that call, members of the Bangladesh-Canada Hindu Mandir temple in Scarborough were raising funds and finding a place for Das and her mother to stay.

“We all had a desire to help,” says Datta, who came to Canada 30 years ago and works as a paralegal while advocating for the rights of Hindus, a religious minority, in Bangladesh as the president of the Bangladesh Minority Rights Alliance. “We gave money, and we gave time driving her to the hospital, going to get groceries, anything that was needed.”

He and others in the Toronto community say Das’s Hindu faith is yet another thing that will put her at risk in Bangladesh, where religious minorities face oppression and persecution.

“That is the main reason we are all here,” says Datta, gesturing to Das, her mother and some of their friends gathered around a table on a recent winter evening at the Bangladesh-Canada Hindu Mandir. “We all have been victims as well.”

Bijit Roy, the temple’s president, says the Toronto community has been moved by Das’s story.

“It was a rare type of cruelty,” he says. “She is far better here. Here she can have a new and safe life.”

Popi Rani Das on a trip to Toronto's Centre Island with her English class last summer.
Popi Rani Das on a trip to Toronto’s Centre Island with her English class last summer.  (Supplied/Popi Rani Das)

Looking at those gathered at the table, Das says she is grateful to everybody for their help — the Toronto surgeons, her new community and Canada, the country that made her safe.

While Das can read and write English fairly well, she finds it more difficult to maintain a conversation in English. Datta helps, when needed, to translate her conversation with a Star journalist between English and Bengali.

Das says she is not yet sure what her future holds as a potential Canadian.

In between her trips to the library and her ESL classes, Das continues to embroider, a task that helped pass time in her Dhaka hospital room. As long as she takes small, slow bites, Das can eat anything that she likes. She still loves Kit Kat and chocolate ice cream and most kinds of cookies. And she is practicing English by watching TV.

“I don’t like sad movies,” she says in English. “Only funny.”

While she is now used to Canadian winters, Das says she can’t wait for the warm weather and more trips to Centre Island, one of her favourite places in Toronto. This summer, she wants to go up the CN Tower so she can look out over the city that is now her home.

“The people here are good,” she says in Bengali.

And then, in English: “Here, I am safe.”

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Puppy from Iran that had acid thrown on face to have surgery in Vancouver

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On a chilly January afternoon, Mugsy zipped across a green lawn like a whitish-brown arrow playing catch.

Her owner, Sam Taylor, a resident of Burnaby, B.C., threw a brown, stuffed hedgehog and the seven-month-old pup chased it, tail wagging, just like any other dog would.

But Mugsy is not like any other dog.

« She looks like Voldemort but has the heart of Harry Potter and his friends, » said Taylor with a laugh, as she cuddled the pup.

On Feb. 12, Mugsy will undergo the third surgery of her life to repair damage from acid that was thrown on her.

Dog to undergo surgery

This surgery, to take place in Vancouver, will create nostril openings and use the tip of her ear to replace the melted bone and skin on the top of her nose, Taylor said.

The dog will be temporarily blind as the ear is folded over her face and attached over her nose so a blood supply forms from the ear onto the nose, she said, adding that the ear acts as a graft.

The next surgery will attach stents in place of nostrils and unfold the ear, she said.

The two surgeries are expected to cost up to $7,000.

« It’s no guarantee but (the doctor) seemed optimistic, » Taylor said, smoothing the dog’s left ear, which will be used to create the bridge of her nose.

Mugsy, a rescue dog from Iran, had a man douse her with a corrosive cleaner when she was around six weeks old. The attack burned much of her face and caused her to loose a eye, most of a ear and her nose. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Mugsy was born in Iran, and when she was 40 days old somebody threw acidic cleaner on her face as she played outside. Most of the pup’s face was melted — including her lip, right eye and right ear.

Although her Iranian family loved her, they could not afford all the treatment that Mugsy would need, so they decided to put her down.

But at veterinarian’s office in Iran, a volunteer from Persian Paws Rescue and Loved At Last Dog Rescue intervened.

She also offered to pay for the Maltese-Japanese spitz mix’s eye removal, which was causing the pup the most pain.

The volunteer was worried about an infection in the dog’s nasal cavity and decided that the best chance for her survival would be if she was adopted by someone in North America who could afford the care, Taylor said.

‘I really want to help this dog’

Last fall, Taylor, who works as a lab assistant at a hospital in downtown Vancouver, was browsing Loved At Last Dog Rescue, which finds homes for local and international stray dogs.

She was looking to make a donation on the site when she saw a blurred-out image that read, « graphic injury. »

« I thought it can’t be that bad, » she said.

She clicked.

« It was very, very graphic. I read her story and just and felt, ‘Oh I really want to help this dog. »‘

Mugsy was flown from Iran to Canada and now lives in Burnaby with Sam Taylor, who adopted her. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

She thought it over for about an hour — just a donation wouldn’t help because the dog needed surgery not available in Tehran — and then asked her roommate, who agreed to having a dog in the house.

« And I showed her a picture, and she said, ‘Whoa, OK. »‘

After filling out an application in late October, Taylor waited for about two months for Mugsy. A family visiting Vancouver brought Mugsy over with them, she said, noting that they had brought over other dogs before.

When Mugsy arrived she was very scared, Taylor said. She barked and howled and didn’t come out of her travelling kennel for about an hour.

And even after she came out, she didn’t eat or drink much.

‘She’s very spoiled’

« But now she’s very spoiled, » Taylor said, holding Mugsy close. « She gets squash and brown rice and sweet potato in her food. She’s pretty well-loved. »

Mugsy was called Hapoochi in Iran, which means tiny puppy, but Taylor said she wasn’t pronouncing the name right so her roommate came up with the name Mugsy.

« She does have the mug for it, » she said, with a chuckle.

Asked why she adopted a dog from another country when there a lot of dogs in Canada that need help, Taylor said it is « incidental » that Mugsy is from Iran.

Once she saw Mugsy on the website, she said she couldn’t stop thinking about her.

« I don’t think animals have boundaries and borders. They don’t have a nationality, » Taylor said. « I can understand if people think it’s a bit corny. »

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Years ago, Canada and the U.S. came together to end the acid rain threat. What changed?

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Nobody talks much about acid rain anymore.

But the one-time scourge of North American lakes and forests got a mention yesterday at the funeral of former U.S. president George H.W. Bush.

Delivering a eulogy for his old colleague and friend, former prime minister Brian Mulroney singled out Bush’s environmental record as a lasting part of his legacy.

« President Bush’s decision to go forward with strong environmental legislation, including the Clear Air Act, that resulted in the Acid Rain Accord with Canada, is a splendid gift to future generations of Americans and Canadians to savour in the air they breathe and the water they drink, » Mulroney said.

The fact that the acid rain threat has been mostly eliminated testifies to how effective Canada and the U.S. once were in responding together to a complex, shared environmental problem.

After years of prodding and lobbying, the U.S. updated its Clean Air Act in 1990. New rules cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, key elements in the creation of acid rain. The reductions were achieved in part by introducing the United States’ first national cap-and-trade system aimed at major polluters.

That was followed by Canada-U.S. Air Quality Agreement signed by Mulroney and Bush in Ottawa in 1991. The agreement was aimed at reducing pollution on both sides of the border that caused acid rain.

And it worked. « It was, by and large, a success, » said John Smol, a professor in the Department of Biology and Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change at Queen’s University.

« I’m not saying acid rain is now completely no longer a problem. But (the agreement) actually did make major changes to the environment. And, in many ways, it’s a good example of how you can actually do this type of legislation, not devastate the economy, and help the environment. »

Climate change

Nearly three decades after Canada and the U.S. agreed to address the problem, Smol said, Canadian lakes are still in the process of recovering from acid rain.

« I think we caught it in time. With many environmental problems, if you wait too long you can’t go back. » he said.

Looking back on the fight against acid rain, Smol said he can now see it as a practice run for the much more daunting battle against climate change.

« Climate change is much more complicated and the consequences are far worse, » he said.

The comparison between the two environmental threats only goes so far, however. While acid rain was a relatively straightforward cross-border matter, climate change requires global action. And while acid rain was curtailed by reducing certain emissions, slowing down climate change likely will require much more: a complete phase-out of fossil fuel use.

Pulling out of Paris, reviving coal

Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, said he still believes there are important similarities that give him hope for progress on climate change.

« Acid rain was, relative to climate change, easier to solve, » he said. « But the key lesson from acid rain, I think, was when we stopped listening to industry lobbyists telling us this would destroy the economy. »

Stewart acknowledges one major difference between the fight against acid rain and the fight against climate change. The political climate in the United States has shifted dramatically since the days of the first President Bush — and the current White House tenant is much less interested in environmental causes.

President Donald Trump announced last year he was pulling his country out of the Paris climate accord. He also has actively campaigned to bring America’s coal industry back to life — the industry ultimately responsible for the emissions that contributed to acid rain in the 1980s.

Stewart calls Trump « a genuine problem » but said there’s still at least one good reason for hope:

« Donald Trump is keen on reviving the coal industry, trying to burn more coal. The silver lining is that he has proven remarkably incompetent at doing this, largely because the economics are against him. »

While Stewart questions the late president’s overall environmental record, he says there can be no doubt on this issue he was a success.

« On acid rain, he proved that conservatives can take environmental issues seriously and be part of that solution. And I think that’s something conservatives in Canada need to learn. »
 

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The Miso Eggs from ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ Are a Cool Party Trick

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I molded a handful of soft miso paste around a slippery hard-boiled egg until it looked like something found at the bottom of the ocean. Then I waited.

These miso-cured eggs are one of the breakout recipes, so to speak, from the new four-part show Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat on Netflix, based on Samin Nosrat’s bestselling cookbook of the same title. (Sidenote: Not just any cookbook. This book is a modern classic; it rethinks the ways we learn how to cook. Read it and your cooking will be forever improved. Moving on!)

In the “Salt” episode, Nosrat travels to Japan to dive into salt-making, as well as soy sauce and miso production. When she meets with author Nancy Singleton Hachisu, they make miso-cured eggs, that look both incredibly easy and salty-funky-delicious. They shape the miso into a patty in their palms, then wrap 8-minute hard-boiled eggs in them, wait four hours, remove the miso with their thumbs, and serve the miso-permeated eggs sliced in half with a sprinkle of shichimi togarashi (a powdered spice mix; try it on popcorn too). There’s something about it that immediately inspired this viewer (and many others!) to try it. It’s eggs. Miso. Patience. If anything—a cool party trick.

In Singleton Hachisu’s 2015 book, Preserving the Japanese Way, her recipe for miso-cured eggs, tamago no misozuke, was a logical next step after making soy sauce pickled eggs. I followed along to make mine, and put them in the office mini-fridge to hang out for the afternoon.

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Photo by Kenji Miura

Step 1: Make a patty of miso

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Photo by Kenji Miura

Step 2: Wrap your hard-boiled egg in it.

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Photo by Kenji Miura

Step 3: Really tuck it in.

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Photo by Kenji Miura

Step 4: Pull them from the fridge after 4 hours.

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Photo by Kenji Miura

Step 5: Doctor up and serve!

Though my miso was softer and didn’t form as Play-Doh putty like hers, I did my best. The result of my sloppy version: Salty! After wiping away the miso (which Singleton Hachisu recommends saving and reusing for more eggs or in soup), I cut the eggs in half and shared them with colleagues. The egg whites had gotten firmer and were outlined with a light brown layer from the sunken-in miso; inside the yolk was still gooey. On its own it was sal-ty, but I’s love it in a salad or soup, or with avocado for breakfast like this person did to balance with other flavors. I used a LOT of miso for only two eggs, so I won’t be pulling a tray of more than four miso-cured eggs out at any big parties. I’m no millionaire. But it was still a fun novelty.

In her latest cookbook, Japan there’s a recipe for three-day miso-pickled egg yolks that can be your next experiment. “Pickling in miso ‘cooks’ raw egg yolks and transforms them into creamy, salty, earthy bites,” she writes, and suggests snacking on these with a glass of cold beer or sake. The yolks are dropped into divots in a container lined with miso, then topped with a blanket of more miso. Next level.

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‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ Is the New Netflix Series That’s Very Much Worth Your Time

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Chef and writer Samin Nosrat is one of those instantly likable people. Watch five minutes of her new Netflix show (out October 12) and you’ll want her to be your personal cooking guru, or, at the very least, your friend. She’s relatable, approachable, and her food is never too precious (see: these recipes she created for this very magazine). This is immediately clear from her cookbook, also called Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, a permanent fixture on many bookshelves in the Bon Appétit offices.

“My secret weapon… is letting bits of humanity creep through,” Nosrat tells me by phone. She feels like most food shows fall into two camps: the highly produced, cinematic, aspirational shows like Chefs’ Table; and the stand and stir, you-can-do-it studio shows. Nosrat sought to find the white space between the two. “What I didn’t see, and what I didn’t understand why I didn’t see, was why there couldn’t be something that was beautiful and cinematic yet accessible.” Thus, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat was born: a four episode series that aims to show home cooks that beautiful is also within their reach.

In the show, Nosrat travels to one locale per episode (Japan=salt, Italy=fat, Mexico=acid, her home in Berkeley=heat) to take a deep dive into what she sees as one of the four core elements of cooking. She visits all types of food professionals, from artisanal soy sauce producers to talented Mexican home cooks to seek stories of people that are often skipped over in mainstream food media coverage. “I wanted to show the kinds of people who I didn’t see ever in other food television. Whenever possible, going deeper in the Google results to look for a woman, to look for a person of color, to look for a home cook,” she says. “It wasn’t always the most obvious person. It wasn’t always the easiest person to locate, but those were things I knew I wanted to push for.”

And it works. The group of people that Nosrat features feel like a very large extension of her family—she learns from them, she messes up with them (“those are the moments that people will relate to and I believe will really empower them”), she eats with them. Food TV should move a bit more this direction—toward the people that we don’t already know about, toward their passions and knowledge—and Nosrat is the right person to lead the charge.

Check out an exclusive clip of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat below, and watch the full series starting October 12:

All products featured on Bonappetit.com are independently selected by our editors. However, when you buy something through our retail links, we may earn an affiliate commission.

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