Twenty days ago, Huzaifa Shehabi, chief operating officer at Saifee Hospital, was in his office when bariatric surgeon Muffazal Lakdawala stepped in for tea. Lakdawala vaguely referred to minor disputes with the sister of Eman Ahmed, who had weighed around 500 kg when she was flown in from Egypt two months ago, over plans of a discharge.
Both of them didn’t realise it then, but the high-profile surgery was about to take an ugly turn.
Last week, what began as a hopeful journey to save Eman Ahmed Abd Et Aty (36), said to be the world’s heaviest woman, spun into a social media spat between doctors and her sister Shaimaa Selim that grabbed global attention.
“If she had approached me, I would have readily kept Eman for longer. But she chose social media to show her anger,” says Shehabi. It was on March 13 that Selim (34) saw a news report, which suggested that doctors may send Eman back to Egypt. “I asked Dr Muffazal, but he said ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry’,” Selim claims. By April 1, she was convinced the hospital had “used” Eman for “publicity”.
The hospital says it spent Rs 1 crore on transport for Eman from her home in Alexandria to Mumbai, and Rs 1 crore on free treatment. Selim says she left her job as engineer and a two-year-old daughter to see Eman walk.
On March 7, the first bariatric procedure was conducted. The Egyptian had shed 120 kg, and Selim hoped six months or a year in hospital would cure her sister. Eman had sleep apnea, hypothyroid, diabetes, hypertension, kidney problems, fluid retention and obesity. By mid-March, her renal functions were under control, creatinine levels had stabilised from 3.7 mg/dL to 1 mg/dL, sleep had returned at nights, and a high-protein diet had ensured significant weight loss.
But there were concerns over the eight epileptic seizures Eman had suffered in those two months, and the paralysis on the right side of her body.
As April inched closer, Lakdawala informed Selim that Eman was fit to go home, that “no hospital keeps a patient for physiotherapy”. “She expects that her sister will start walking one day. I never promised her that. When Eman was brought here, I thought even if she returned home sitting that would be a victory. We have reached that point,” says Lakdawala.
For the next few days, Selim repeatedly asked doctors to keep Eman for a few more months. There were other concerns. With no nursing team around, where would she get the four people needed to shift her sister around? What if Eman had another seizure, who would carry her to hospital? Where would the money for future treatment come from?
Before the Mumbai trip, Eman’s family used to spend 7,000 Egyptian pounds (Rs 25,000) for her care every month. Her mother, Sana Selim, held a tailoring job and her father had passed away in 2016.
Selim admits that she became hostile, blocking all attempts by the hospital to take Eman’s videos for “cheap publicity”. Shortly after April 10, she and Lakdawala were locked in a bitter fight. On April 14, she took to social media with a video of Eman. “I did that to contradict the claims of doctors that she was completely fit for discharge,” she says.
That video took the face-off to the edge. Selim started getting “angry with the nursing staff”. And, on the night of April 24, four doctors treating Eman took to Facebook to tender their resignation as a symbolic protest against Selim’s approach.
“This is a special case and there are emotions attached. I have worked in government hospitals, and patient conflicts are normal. But this has never happened. The Facebook post was my platform to express my thoughts,” says Dr Nimisha Kantharia, consultant surgeon.
“The last three weeks have been full of resistance. Eman’s growth would have been faster if she and her sister had cooperated in physiotherapy,” says nephrologist Dr Hemal Shah, adding, “Until a month ago we were heroes.”
Meanwhile, Eman’s weight increased, for the first time since she was admitted — from 171 kg to 176.6 kg on Thursday.
“Even if one medical parameter went off track, we would rush to her side. As a team, we have been shamed for no fault,” says Dr Neha Dhulla, Eman’s nutritionist who was among the four who took to Facebook that night.
The Egyptian consulate general Ahmed Khalil tried to resolve the face-off, but the meeting ended in a deadlock.
Lakdawala claims he stayed by Eman’s side for three nights when she was unwell. In return, he says, Eman would communicate through Google translator, blow kisses and watch Bollywood movies — until last month.
Eman now complains of constant pain in her legs. “If she continues to remain bed-ridden, what was the point? The hospital should give her six months and then accept defeat,” says Selim.
Hospital authorities argue that Eman’s anatomical structure will never let her walk. “We have cutting edge in obesity, not in neurology. We kept our promise and brought her weight down,” says Shehabi, the COO.
With Selim now preparing to shift Eman to Abu Dhabi for treatment under VPS Healthcare, calls have come in from Union External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, and Maharashtra’s Tourism Minister Jaykumar Rawal and Health Minister Deepak Sawant.
The hospital has shifted Eman to a smaller room. On Tuesday, Lakdawala was invited to speak on an Egyptian news channel where he was accused of embezzlement of funds. “If I had ruined a patient’s life, I would understand the family’s anger. But we toiled hard in this case. Instead of gratitude, she has accused the Indian medical fraternity,” says Lakdawala.
In the hospital, guards keep a wary eye on Selim, fearing an outburst or a frenzied media at her heels. And Eman remains in her bed on the seventh floor, feeding tubes sustaining her, an oxygen mask pumping life into her at nights.