An Egyptian woman blinded and disfigured by an acid attack says she has renewed hope after undergoing operations in Dubai to reconstruct her face.
Heba Hosni, 38, revealed her painstaking 10-year road to recovery caused by a former partner, who threw acid in her face as she walked to work in Cairo after their relationship broke down.
The man responsible was jailed for 10 years in 2015, five years after he committed the heinous act on Ms Hosni.
After eight operations in Dubai, using the latest reconstructive techniques and a nose constructed on her forearm, she can wash her face once more and feel the soft tissue of her nose and mouth.
“The attack stripped me of the one thing that made me a woman most, my face and my ability to show it to people without them averting their eyes,” said Ms Hosni, who has since become a champion against domestic violence in Egypt.
“People look away from my injuries for a variety of different reasons, sometimes because they pity me and sometimes because they have a weak stomach.”
Ms Hosni felt the same way about herself, and looking in the mirror only reminded her of the attack at 9.30am on May 29, 2008.
For months after recovering from her horrific injuries, she dressed in a niqab to hide her face.
An appearance on Egyptian TV to highlight domestic abuse was the start of her redemption when a benefactor, inspired by her bravery, stepped in.
The unidentified man from Saudi Arabia promised to pay for surgery in Dubai.
The cost of such a complex series of procedures would typically top Dh350,000.
Recalling the incident remains difficult, with psychological scars running deep, and Ms Hosni is unable to wash from the neck up due to a phobia of splashing liquid on to her face.
The attack melted her eyelids, nose and upper lip, and caused serious burns to her arms.
In the immediate aftermath, she described feeling as though her head was on fire as her face and hair melted away.
An ambulance took her to a hospital in Cairo, where she remained for about six months as doctors tried to save what was left of her face.
In the years since, with her sight gone, other senses became finely tuned.
“With the loss of my eyes, I learnt how to see with my mind and my memory, and hear with my heart,” said Ms Hosni, who hopes she will one day be able to return to work, rather than rely on charity to care for her son, Abdul Rahman.
“My hearing has taken the place of sight, and through someone’s tone, or choice of words, I can feel their emotions and read their intentions.”
Ms Hosni now struggles to trust people after the attack, by a man she had been in a relationship with. It is slowly being restored thanks to the kindness shown by her mystery benefactor and the healthcare professionals in Dubai.
Eight surgeries in two years
Surgeries were completed by Dr Mohan Rangaswamy, a consultant plastic surgeon, who led a team of experts at the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery Hospital in Dubai Healthcare City and NMC Royal Hospital.
A prosthetic nose was created by prosthetic sculptor Ashwaq Al Hashmi of Omniyati Prosthetic Arts Centre in Deira.
She underwent painful procedures to gradually rebuild her face using skin from elsewhere on her body. In one six-hour operation, in March, 2019, a reconstructed nose, “grown” on her forearm, was implanted.
It was made by taking a rib-bone and cartilage and applied using microvascular surgery to blood vessels of the neck, then attached to the existing bone stump with two screws.
Dr Rangaswamy said the case was one of the most challenging he has been involved with.
“We have gone beyond where we thought we would be able to go with Heba,” he said.
“Her skin was paper-thin on to the bone of what was left of her face.
“This burn was 10 years ago, so it was not a matter of her being in pain, but her skin had contracted as it was recovering so felt very tight.
“Now it is much softer and there is a huge difference.
Doctors completed eight significant procedures, of between four and 10 hours’ duration.
“I have always been a very independent person,” said Ms Hosni, the eldest of four sisters.
“Before my attack I was the main provider for my family, as well as my young son.
“I did not need other people, and I took pride in that.
“After the attack, my dependence on others caused me a great deal of emotional pain and psychological distress.”
Evil poem that signalled attack
The attack is seared in her memory and she is unlikely to forget the events of that early summer morning in the Cairo heat.
A poem written by her attacker and sent as text message days before is also etched into her mind.
“It is told that a bird once fell in love with a white flower.
She told him she would only love him when her white petals turned red,
So he flew high above her and slashed his wing.
He spread his blood all over her white petals until they were all red.
Now you must love me before it is too late.”
Ms Hosni has not given up hope of being able to see her son’s face once again.
“I am still hoping to get another medical sponsorship to get my eyes fixed,” she said.
“There are no words to describe how happy I am to be able to touch my face after all these years.
“I had to wear a niqab for years to hide my face, and now I am freer than I have been in a decade.”