Muhammad Taluli, age 42 and a father to six, had locked himself away at home for the past decade, ashamed and afraid of seeing other people.
One day, inexplicably, strange growths started forming on his hands. Over time, it was as if his hands were entirely covered in bits of bark. He was afraid of what strangers would think of him, and he himself had no idea what was wrong either.
But then, a few months ago, he found a doctor willing to help him.
When Taluli stepped into Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, the doctors there were stunned.
Dr. Michael Chernofsky is the senior hand and microvascular surgeon at the medical center, and took on overseeing the recovery of Taluli’s unique ailment.
“I’ve seen some weird things, but not this,” Chernofsky said.
Taluli’s disease is called epidermodysplasia verruciformis, and only a handful of people in the world have ever suffered from this rare disease. The unusual condition has been dubbed the “tree man” disease because the tumors look like bark, and there has only been one case of a cure.
The disease itself is a varied virus, which limits the body’s ability to fight it off, causing it to take over the skins and creating strange lesions. Most patients who develop this end up with flat warts, not large tumors that resemble pieces of bark, professor Jerome Garden told NPR. Because the virus has so many mutations, doctors are unsure why it can appear differently for different people, and there are no standard guidelines for treatment.
Taluli, too, had gone to several doctors who did not know what to do with it, and turned him away.
Chernofsky decided to try despite not knowing what to do.
“This was ruining his life,” he said.
They decided to try surgically removing the growths, and grafting healthy skin from other parts of his body onto his hands.
So far, it is working.
Instead of pieces of “bark” obstructing use of his hands, Taluli’s hands now look like they have been burned, but otherwise he can use them just fine.
“After years of being ashamed and staying at home, unable to work and unwilling to show my hand to people, I have finally been given some hope of my life returning to the way it used to be,” Taluli said in a statement.
Earlier this week, Taluli was able to go home. Doctors say it’s possible the growths will come back and he will need surgery again, but they will probably come back more slowly. He was given various medications to stave it off, paid for by the doctors themselves.
Early this year, Adul Bajanda from Bangladesh was cured of this disease as well—becoming a historic first. He had suffered with immense growths on his hand for 16 years before undergoing a string of intense operations in 2016, and made a recovery the beginning of this year.
Bajanda felt he had suffered a curse, but the experimental operations were working one by one, and it gave him hope.
“I never thought I would ever be able to hold my kid with my hands,” he told AFP after the most recent surgeries, showing a bandaged hand.
“Now I feel so much better, I can hold my daughter in my lap and play with her. I can’t wait to go back home.
“I hope the curse won’t return again.”
Samanta Lal Sen, plastic surgery coordinator at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, said they operated on Bajandar 16 times.
“Bajandar’s cure was a remarkable milestone in the history of medical science,” she said.