In the quiet lanes of J.P. Nagar, Bengaluru, resides a woman whose life story reads like a captivating movie script. At 72 years old, Dr. Prema Dhanraj, recently honored with the Padma Shri award, has transformed her personal tragedy into a mission of hope and healing for burn survivors who have lost all hope.
Dr. Dhanraj’s journey began in 1965 when, at the tender age of eight, a kitchen fire engulfed her, leaving 50 percent of her body with severe burn injuries. Her face, once adorned with dark almond eyes and chiseled features, melted into a mass of flesh within seconds. Yet, from the ashes of this tragedy emerged a spirit determined to overcome adversity.
A pact with God
Admitted to the Christian Medical College Hospital in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, young Prema fought for her life. Her mother, Rosie Stella Dhanraj, struck a pact with God during those trying times. “If you save my child, I vow to dedicate her to the service of your people. I will make her a doctor and work in this same hospital,” she fervently prayed. Miraculously, Prema survived, setting the stage for a remarkable journey.
Undergoing over 14 surgeries during her childhood at Christian Medical College, Vellore, Dr. Dhanraj’s resilience shone through. She not only conquered her personal tragedy but went on to become a Surgeon and Head of the Department at the same hospital. Her academic pursuits included joining the MBBS course at KIMS, Hubballi, and completing MD in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery from Christian Medical College at Ludhiana, Punjab.
Returning to Christian Medical College, Vellore in 1989 as a surgeon, she dedicated nearly 30 years of her life to serving as a plastic surgeon, mending burnt bodies and restoring hope to those who had lost it.
Despite facing societal challenges and personal struggles, Prema pursued her education, obtaining a B.Sc. degree from the Arts and Science College, Bangalore. Reflecting on those difficult years, she admits, “My mother taught me how to channelize my negative emotions in a positive manner.” Her mother’s wisdom became the cornerstone of Prema’s resilience.
Through her organization, Agni Raksha, founded with her sister Chitra in 1999, Dr. Dhanraj extended her healing touch to burn victims, especially women and children from economically weaker sections. The NGO provided medical treatment and holistic rehabilitation, offering free surgery to 25,000 burn victims. Notably, she established Ethiopia’s first burns unit and contributed to the education of doctors in Kenya, Tanzania, Norway, and Ethiopia.
In an interview with The Hindu, Dr. Dhanraj expressed her surprise and happiness at being chosen for the prestigious Padma Shri award. “I am very happy that they have recognized me. I was quietly working without expecting anything, but this was very surprising,” she shared. Her humility and dedication to her cause have touched the lives of many, creating a ripple effect of inspiration.
Looking back at her life, Dr. Prema Dhanraj acknowledges the transformative power of her accident. “If not for my accident, I wouldn’t have achieved so much in life. I have got more than I bargained for. I never thought that I could reach far in life with my face. But God changed everything,” she reflects. Today, her face serves as a source of encouragement and confidence for her patients, proving that strength and beauty are found within.
As she stands on the pinnacle of recognition with the Padma Shri award, Dr. Dhanraj’s story is a testament to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Her advice to those feeling defeated in life is simple yet profound: “Stop comparing yourself with others. Be willing to face reality and move on in life. Develop a cheerful attitude. Be humble and trust in God. Then sit back and enjoy life.”
Despite achieving her dreams and fulfilling her life’s purpose, Dr. Prema Dhanraj harbors one last wish – a serene and beautiful passing. “I should have a quick death, and when people see me, they should say, ‘Oh, she looks so beautiful and peaceful.’ I want to look more beautiful than I am now when I meet my Lord.” A wish that echoes the remarkable beauty of a life dedicated to healing and service.