Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine helps victim of terrorist attack put his life back together
In a matter of about 90 seconds, Talha Ali’s life changed forever. He went from a promising high-school student in Pakistan, consistently at the top of his class, to the victim of a terrorist attack, who would spend the next six years trying to put his body—and his life—back together again.
That journey culminated earlier this year at Case Western Reserve University, where faculty members from the School of Dental Medicine rebuilt Ali’s face in a complicated reconstructive surgery—free of charge to his family.
The morning of Dec. 16, 2014, was like any other for Ali, in 10th grade at the time. That day, he and his classmates were huddled on the floor of the auditorium, sharing some laughs before the start of a lecture about first aid.
It turned out they would need those lessons, as that day was anything but normal.
Ali heard commotion toward the rear of the auditorium, near the entrance. It sounded like gunfire, but the idea was absurd. Unknown to he and his classmates, six gunmen affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban had stormed the school grounds and the auditorium and opened fire on the students, ranging from eighth to 12th grade.
“I saw the gunmen, firing blindly at us,” he said. “I stood up, and I’m tall, so the bullets were flying around my head.”
One of the gunmen had cut through the crowd and was standing face-to-face with him. “He shot me at point-blank range,” he said. “I felt a strong, painful jerk in my face. Blood was everywhere.”
He didn’t yet realize he’d been shot three more times—twice in the chest and once in the back; one of the bullets punctured his lung. He’d also been wounded by grenade shrapnel.
A nearby teacher encouraged him to scramble to his feet. Ali made it out, applying pressure to his wounds. “The pain was unimaginable,” Ali said. “I didn’t know if I was going to die. I called out for my mother and father.”
As quickly as the shooting began, it abruptly ended, the sounds of gunfire replaced by feet shuffling and children screaming.
Ali was one of the lucky ones. Of the 150 people killed in the attack that day, 134 were Ali’s fellow students. While he waited for medical help, Ali saw that one of his friends he’d been socializing with only moments before, had died.
At the hospital, doctors worked to save Ali’s life. Some encouraged his parents to prepare for funeral arrangements. He was on a ventilator for more than two weeks.
Putting the pieces back together
Six years later, Ali, now 22, finished up his last portion of facial reconstruction surgery at the dental school. The first bullet that hit Ali during the attack had crushed the lower half of his face, taking bone and teeth with it.
Since the shooting, he’s worn a surgical mask to hide what he describes as a deformity. The next six years were a revolving door of surgeries, some in Pakistan, others in Dubai and a recent operation in New York City to repair his nose in a septum rhinoplasty procedure.
Faisal Quereshy, a professor at the university’s School of Dental Medicine and director of the residency program in the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, led the effort in Cleveland.
“What (Ali) went through was traumatic, and I know he was very self-conscious,” Quereshy said. “We treated him for his oral facial reconstruction—he had so much missing bone structure.”
Quereshy was joined by Fady Faddoul, a professor and chair of the Department of Comprehensive Care at the dental school.
“This is really in line with the School of Dental Medicine’s commitment to serving those in need,” Quereshy said. “Our mission is not only to our commitment to science, treatment and health, but delivering the best patient care using state-of-the-art technology and evidence-based practices.”
Even with the dental school’s longstanding commitment to helping others, this was an unusually involved project: The assessment fees were pro bono. The implant company waived the cost of the materials. The lab work was donated. The work was done in the dental school’s new multi-million-dollar dental clinic.
“This is really a special circumstance,” Quersehy said. “I feel fortunate to be a part of this. It’s something very special.”
After bone reconstruction, the final phase of Ali’s treatment at Case Western Reserve involved getting his new prosthetic teeth set in place.
“My treatment in America was incredible,” Ali said. “Dr. Quereshy and Dr. Faddoul are the best of the best. They showed me so much care.”
Ali said he’s ready to move on with his life. His reconstructive surgery was a big part of that. He’s even considering applying to the university’s Weatherhead School of Management, where he’s interested in studying business.
“I want to be the productive man I was before,” he said. “I’d been a great student. It’s this pause that my life has taken that has been the hardest. I’ll get back to it. I am mentally and emotionally strong. Under no circumstance will you find me giving up—I just don’t give up.”