Teenager given pioneering stem cell surgery after gas explosion causes devastating burns

Teenager dreams of becoming airline pilot after receiving stem cell treatments in Dubai

Burns victim Mohammed Garba is undergoing treatment using stem cell technology to repair his skin in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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A teenager's hopes of becoming an Emirates airline pilot have been resurrected after a surgeon in Dubai used innovative stem cell treatments to repair severe burns sustained in a gas explosion.

Mohammed Garba, 18, from Katsina in Nigeria, was helping his father tend to eggs in an incubator at home when a gas bottle exploded nearby. The blast scorched his face, arms and legs causing agonising pain and devastating injuries.

Mr Garba was rushed to hospital nearby, and then flown to Cairo to undergo several skin grafts to repair the damage, most of which failed.

These stem cells crawl on the skin like ants and start quickly covering the wound
Dr Sanjay Parashar, plastic surgeon

A year on, Mr Garba feared his dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot was over as he was unable to walk or move his arms.

But after contacting Dr Sanjay Parashar, a leading plastic surgeon, on Instagram, Mr Garba was flown to Dubai to undergo the latest skin grafting techniques that have set him on the recovery road.

“My hands were badly injured as I used them to cover my face as the explosion happened,” he said.

“When I looked down at them the skin looked like water, the pain was indescribable - I had never felt anything like it.

“I shouted and my parents, my brothers came out.

“A policeman lived nearby to us, so he helped take me to the hospital quickly.”

Mr Garba spent 17 days in hospital in Nigeria.

Then, in September, he flew to see a specialist in Cairo, with his family spending $20,000 on his care.

When he returned home, he was told to regularly change his dressings to avoid infection.

Painful recovery

That, however, prevented the skin grafts healing correctly and he remained in excruciating pain.

His long, slow recovery forced him to abandon his training at the aviation college near his home town.

“I was worried my wounds weren't healing as it had been more than a year since the accident,” said Mr Garba, who has four brothers and three sisters.

“I searched for plastic surgeons on Instagram, and messaged Dr Sanjay who got back in touch really quickly.

“I asked if he treated burn patients, and he then asked me to come to Dubai for a consultation.”

Mr Garba arrived in Dubai last week for a meeting with Dr Parashar, a plastic surgeon who specialises in skin grafts at the Cocoona Clinic in Al Wasl.

He was then transferred to the nearby Dubai London Hospital to undergo two new skin grafts.

“The first thing I realised was he was changing his dressings every other day, which was a mistake,” said Dr Parashar.

“When any wound is healing, tiny stem cells or epithelial cells are growing, but every time you remove the dressing they're gone.

“We told him to apply some creams and sprays to encourage the healing process and keep the wounds clean.

“He improved very quickly and the pain reduced, he was soon much happier.”

Dr Parashar took small pinch skin grafts, a special technique, and a blister graft from his stomach to apply to the wounds.

They were applied in several places with collagen powder to improve healing.

An artificial dermis, or extra skin layer, was created and applied to allow for elastic movement in the knees and elbows to improve his mobility.

A further meek micrograft was added, where skin is stretched to two or three times its usual size to cover a wider area.

“We have stem cells in our epidermis and in the hair follicles and sweat glands,” said Dr Parashar.

“These stem cells crawl on the skin like ants and start quickly covering the wound.

“I have to pinch skin from the donor and put it into a machine to develop more skin graft skin cells that can then be applied.

“Stem cells are very powerful and have huge potential for healing these kind of wounds.”

Surgery keeps dream alive

Dr Parashar has waived the Dh50,000 medical fees he would usually charge to take on such a case.

Despite that, Mr Garba's family has incurred other considerable medical costs.

Mr Garba, who is accompanied in Dubai by his older brother, Umar, a civil servant in Nigeria, is hoping to extend his visa in the UAE to three months so he can continue his recovery and rehabilitation.

He has not given up hope of one day achieving his dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot.

“Becoming a pilot has always been on my mind, even through all this,” said Mr Garba.

“I have always wanted to fly aircraft, ever since a child.

“The training cost is very expensive, so I’m not sure my parents can now commit to that after all my medical costs.

“Hopefully one day I will be able to learn to fly, maybe even with Emirates. For now, I just want to recover.”

A previous version of this article featured the headline "Nigerian teenager given free surgery after gas explosion causes devastating burns". This has been amended to "Nigerian teenager given free care after gas explosion causes devastating burns" owing to the fact that Mr Garba's family did contribute towards Dr Parashar's fees, despite him waiving Dh50,000 in charges and providing pro bono care.

Updated: March 21, 2024, 10:48 AM