Many of you will already have seen Dede Koswara “The Tree Man” a few years ago when a picture of him posted on the internet sparked a veritable media frenzy. Thanks to the attention, an American dermatologist was able to diagnose his condition as a rare combination of conditions, and offered to treat the tree-like growths that were consuming his body and had cost him his marriage, his job and his independence.
The surgeries went well, for the first time in over a decade Dede was able to use his hands again and walk without pain, and so his story has been largely forgotten. But sadly, the story hasn’t ended there.
The story of Dede’s condition begins 30 years ago when he was 10 years old. Whilst out in the forest near his home on the island of Java in Indonesia, Dede cut his knee whilst out in the forest. Shortly afterwards, small warts sprouted around the wound, which eventually spread to his feet and hands.
As he grew older, his warts continued to grow. Eventually the sheer number and size of them meant that his ability to carry out his job as a tradesman suffered, and though the warts didn’t hurt or itch, they gave off a sickening odour. At 28, Dede’s wife of 10 years left him as he became unable to work to support her and their two children.
Dede ended up travelling with a circus to earn a living. It was whilst he was there, that a photo of him posted online attracted the attention of a group of documentary makers who sought the advice of dermatologist Anthony Gaspari, about what was causing his condition.
It was discovered that Dede had contracted the common human papillomavirus, a condition that usually causes small warts like the ones he first developed as a child. However, a rare immune deficiency allowed the warts to grow out of control, leading to the root-like barnacles known as cutaneous horns which eventually covered his face and limbs. According to the leader of the team which treated Dede at the Hasan Sadikin Hospital in Bandung, “he is like an HIV patient, but he is negative. Because his immunity system is so weak, it’s easy for other infections to enter his body.”After flying out to visit Dede, Gaspari designed a drug treatment program and worked with Indonesian surgeons to cut 13 pounds of warts and decaying matter from Dede’s body using an electric saw. Doctors then used chemotherapy to bring the virus under control, but the treatment was cut short after Dede’s liver began to fail.
Unfortunately, it was shortly after this point that political complications led to conflict between Gaspari and Indonesian officials. Though things were eventually cleared up, the problems resulted in Gaspari’s departure from the medical team before Dede’s treatment could be completed. Indonesian doctors tried a second round of surgeries, but Dede’s warts returned.
Gaspari believes that a complete cure would require a bone marrow transplant or other procedures not readily available in Indonesia. “There are things I still want to do for Dede, but my hands are tied,” he said. “The government seems to view me as some outsider butting in where I don’t belong.” Meanwhile, Indonesian officials are reluctant to let Dede travel abroad for care, fearing he would become exploited as a medical research project.
All of this of course leaves Dede stuck in the middle. “For a cure,” he says, “I’d go anywhere in the world.” Sadly, all he and his family can do is hope that he’ll be allowed to.