Playing Doctor

A parent pushing his child to perform surgery is pushing too hard, experts say.

He'd dressed for the surgery in a dark-blue bow tie, light gray blazer and white-striped shirt, hair perfectly combed, stethoscope dangling from his neck. When the video crew signaled, Akrit Pran Jaswal -- sitting behind a desk cluttered with anatomy textbooks, parents hovering nearby -- gazed into the camera and described the procedure he was about to perform on an eight-year-old girl.

"Today, I am very much happy to have an opportunity to serve the poor community," he stammered, glancing repeatedly at his father. "I feel pleasure that I am conducting a surgery independently: Dupuytren's Contracture."

The girl, Anju, had severely burned her hand as a toddler when she crawled into a cooking fire; her fingers had been closed into a tight fist. Her father had come to Akrit's father, Kulwant Singh Jaswal, seeking help. After requiring the man to sign a waiver, Jaswal agreed. Surgical equipment had been purchased, the laboratory prepared, the video crew hired. All was ready.

Akrit Jaswal, the boy wonder, in Denver.
Akrit Jaswal, the boy wonder, in Denver.
Akrit Jaswal performing surgery in India.
Akrit Jaswal performing surgery in India.

At noon on November 19, 2000, Akrit -- now dressed in surgical garb that was much too large for his tiny frame -- began operating. He administered an intravenous and a local anesthetic, then meticulously sliced away the scarred tissue with a scalpel, separating the fingers, opening the hand. His father and another assistant hovered nearby. At the height of the procedure, the girl groaned, squirmed and cried. Akrit's mask started slipping off his face; his gloves became bunched and wrinkled. But after about forty minutes, it was all over.

Later, the girl sat beside her father, holding her bandaged hand. The father smiled, bowed his head and clasped his hands in a gesture of thanks. Akrit nodded graciously, returning the gesture, then grinned and said, "Good health for all."

Akrit Jaswal was seven years old at the time.

He has had no formal schooling and no medical training, yet his father believes he possesses the mind of a master surgeon. Akrit has memorized medical books, witnessed surgeries, performed experiments, prescribed drugs and developed what he claims is a cure for cancer. But the prodigy cannot share what he knows with the medical community; he cannot learn what he does not know. According to his father, Akrit is the victim of "age discrimination." Medical schools in India will not accept anyone under seventeen; they've told Akrit, who is now eight, that he must wait. This is unacceptable to Jaswal.

"If he is assessed and evaluated, he must be allowed to appear at medical colleges and schools," Jaswal says. "Perhaps he has the cure for cancer. He should be given permission to work on it. He must have a chance."

Jaswal, Akrit and the rest of the family arrived in Denver on a muggy August day. They'd sold some of their land holdings to finance the trip and had no money to visit the sites or go shopping. For the most part, they sat in their motel room, watching movies, making appointments, and hoping that with the help of Linda Silverman and others, they might find enough support to open doors that have been slammed shut in India.

"He is a special case," Jaswal said, sitting in that motel room filled with cigarette smoke. "He should be treated as one."

His parents spotted Akrit's gifts the moment he was born on April 23, 1993. He never crawled. He never wore diapers. He was walking and speaking clearly at ten months. By age three, he was reciting Shakespeare and reading T.S. Eliot. "He never hesitated to learn," added Jaswal, who has a Ph.D. in economics. "He explored and explored and read everything. He was like a mature man."

Akrit's insatiable curiosity focused on medicine. He would ask his father how people died, quiz his friends in academia, and "order my father to bring me biology books," Akrit said.

Jaswal assembled a collection that includes Gray's Anatomy, Textbook of Surgery, Book on Anesthesia, Human Anatomy and Medical Physiology. The boy devoured them by studying an hour a day, focusing completely. What he learns, he retains "like a photographic memory," Akrit explained. "It requires only concentration."

"We are unable to know these things he is studying," Jaswal added. "I consider him a scientist. We cannot teach him. He has his own systems. We can only provide him with books."

Jaswal quit his job as an economic and business advisor in New Delhi and moved his family back to his hometown of Himachal Pradesh. He devoted himself to the education of his son, who has scored in the very superior range on Indian IQ tests. Because of Akrit's abilities, Jaswal decided not to enroll him in traditional schools. Instead, he and his wife founded their own, called Hamlet, where they and other teachers instructed over 200 children. Akrit started attending classes at age three, immediately surpassing his classmates.

"He was the first to see, the first to raise his hand," Jaswal said. "He called me, 'Sir,' never 'Papa.' He was very serious about his studies."

Within two years, Akrit was teaching courses in math and English, a better teacher than his father, Jaswal says. But although he excelled in other subjects, Akrit has never been interested in anything that doesn't involve "living systems," he said. "For me, medicine only. Nothing else."

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