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Playing Doctor

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

His dream is "to be a neurologist and an oncologist," he added. "Cancer is something special. It is my mission. Many scientists have tried, tried, tried, but they cannot cure it. But it is curable. Much curable. One hundred percent curable. And I will make a cure."

Jaswal built his son a small library and makeshift laboratory in their home, stocking shelves with textbooks, anatomy charts, microscopes and dissecting instruments. He introduced his son to doctors, medical administrators and professors, who were so impressed that they allowed Akrit to witness surgeries. Akrit did his own operations, too, experimenting on animals.

"We went to the poultry farm, bought a live chicken, he dissected it, and after, we ate it for dinner," said his mother, Raksha Kumari Jaswal, who has a master's degree in literature.

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.

As word of Akrit's abilities spread, villagers crowded their home, seeking advice or trying to catch a glimpse of a boy they considered a god. A guru proclaimed Akrit the reincarnation of a German doctor. "He hates it," Jaswal said of his son's reaction to such idol notions. "He does not listen to them."

But Akrit did begin to treat some of the people who appeared on their doorstep, moved by a genuine concern for the suffering of the poor, his father says. Akrit consulted his textbooks, discussed the cases with doctors and prescribed medicine for more than a thousand people. He treated a man suffering from a brain disorder. He treated a man suffering from lip cancer and cured him in fourteen days. He treated an elderly woman with a leg injury.

According to Jaswal, Akrit's patients were fully aware of his age, of his self-taught skills and his lack of experience. "Indians are accepting him," he added. "This is their choice. There is never a complaint." And since many of the people who request Akrit's help are poor and desperate, he points out, how can Akrit refuse them?

"Is it wise?" Jaswal asked. "No. It is illegal. But he has met with surgeons. He has watched them. He discusses with them. He has learned. He knows. Whatever happens will happen. I pray to God to help me."

Jaswal flashed snapshots of Akrit with his patients. The boy opened an overnight bag and began tossing out packets of pills. "He knows all medicines," his father said. "National, international."

Although Jaswal acknowledges that the videotaped surgery was an unusual way to promote his son's abilities, Jaswal said he had to provide documentation of Akrit's skills, no matter how difficult it might be to watch. "But he did it, sir," he pointed out. "He is very brave. I was astonished. I was shivering when it happened. As he explained to the media, he turned a plastic surgery into a simple surgery. He proved his abilities, illegal or not."

"The hand is all right," Akrit concurred. "Very, very fine."

Jaswal even took his son's case to India's prime minister, but he found no help in his crusade to get his son into medical school. "He was appreciated by all, but refused admission," he said. "Nobody has time to help us. Everyone is too busy. We cannot fight the law."

Or the media, for that matter. Jaswal has been vilified by the Indian press for isolating his son from other children, living his failed medical dreams through Akrit, parading him before television and news crews "to air his worth" and stealing the childhood of a boy "who has never been taught nursery rhymes."

"The Ex-child," a 1998 article in The Pioneer, quoted psychologist Dr. Jitendra Nagpal: "All this will take a toll on Akrit's life. He has no friends to call his own except his parents, has never been to a school and has no social interaction. Though he may score above average on the memorizing ability scale, he may be just average in analytical ability. The child's psychological and social development has been neglected at the expense of his intellectual development, which is harmful in the long run. A fast budding of intellectual faculties at a young age usually leads to burnout."

An article in the Indian Expressquoted Dr. Vishwajeet Rohil, of the Maulana Azad Medical College: "Most of what he has studied is from books and by rote. He needs to study in a systematic manner. Personally, I feel the parental pressure put on this child is tremendous."

Those who met with the Jaswals in Denver echo that fear. They worry that father and son are feeding each other's fantasies. At best, Jaswal's single-minded desire to see his son become the world's youngest doctor could lead to Akrit being barred from practicing medicine altogether. And at worst? You have an eight-year-old boy playing doctor -- on live patients.

"I'm deeply concerned," Silverman says. "The relationship between father and son is different than anything I've come across before. All the other parents I have worked with have realized that these are children with adult minds, but with children's bodies and children's level of experience. They make room for the children to be children. They allow them to play with other children. They do whatever they can do to develop their social skills. They make sure they are involved in age-appropriate activities. They are very concerned and aware of the whole child. In my career, I haven't run across a parent who has made the decision of what his child was going to be and then pushed them into that mold. It feels to me like the son is doing what he thinks his father wants from him. He's expected to be a little adult most of the time. There's some question as to who is playing doctor here. Is it Akrit who is practicing medicine without a license, or is it Jaswal?"

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