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Prerna Gandhi was attacked with acid at age 13 in India. Now attending the University of Cincinnati at UC Blue Ash, she calls herself an "acid-attack fighter" and dreams of becoming a motivational speaker. photo/Taylor Norton/provided


 

Redefining beauty

 

Acid-attack survivor Prerna Gandhi thriving as a UC Blue Ash freshman


by Morgan Batanian
513-556-5224

May 2, 2016

Her name is Prerna, and it means “inspiration.”

Ironically, until recently, that may have been the last way this UC Blue Ash freshman would have described herself. In fact for years, when she heard her name as she walked the streets of her hometown in Rohtak, India, it was normally associated with the phrase “poor Prerna.”

Prerna Gandhi’s life changed in an instant on June 18, 2011, as the 13 year old was leaving a tutoring class with a friend. The girls hopped on the scooter and started to make their way home. As Prerna drove home with her friend on the back, two men on motorcycles came along from the opposite direction and threw acid at them, mainly splashing Prerna.


Prerna Gandhi around age 13 prior to her attack
Prerna Gandhi around age 13 in a green ceremonial dress.

Prerna Gandhi around age 13 prior to the attack. photos/provided


She fell to the ground, filled with unbearable pain throughout her body.

“I felt as though half of my body was in fire,” Prerna says, “and I stumbled through an open gate while screaming for help.”  

Acid attacks are alarmingly common in India, Pakistan and many other countries. It is a form of violence primarily directed against women and is seen as an act of discipline designed to destroy someone’s identity.

The acid caused third-degree burns over 40 percent of Prerna’s body. For the next year, Prerna hid her scars with a scarf and only left the house when it was necessary. Her parents encouraged her to go out daily and face their community, to go be confident again. And, slowly but surely, Prerna did.  

“My parents wanted to be proud of me. They would say ‘Look at that Prerna,’” the University of Cincinnati student says. “And I knew I needed to do something to make them proud and feel amazing. I feel like if I didn’t have family support, I wouldn’t be here.”



Prerna demonstrates how she used a scarf and her hair to conceal her scars.

Prerna demonstrates how she used a scarf and her hair to conceal her scars. photo/provided


Acid-attack victims usually stop their education, she says, and stay home. “And that happened to me, too. I didn’t want to go out, and I didn’t want to go to school either. But then my parents forced me to go to school and study, and that’s why I am here.”

Cincinnati bound

Having more than 20 to 25 surgeries in India, Prerna and her family were not satisfied. She knew she was going to need better treatment. Through one of her uncle’s connections in the United States, Prerna’s family was put in contact with Shriners Hospitals for Children — Cincinnati, a burn specialty facility. Shriners provides free medical care for their patients aged 16 to 21 years old, meaning Prerna was in luck.  

As she traveled to the United States with her mother, Prerna knew that this was a good, positive change. After six months of being in the states, her mother returned home to India while Prerna stayed in the capable hands of Shriners and American host families.

Prerna settled in with her host family, Matt and Heidi Hudson-Flege. While living with them, Prerna met a girl about the same age named Graci Doll. She and her family live in the same neighborhood as Prerna did, and the two girls became instant best friends. Prerna was able to go to high school with Graci and shadow her every day. After a year passed, Prerna’s host parents received the news that they had to relocate to South Carolina for work. And without hesitation, Graci insisted that Prerna live in her home with her family.

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“I thought she was just trying to be nice at first,” Prerna says. “But then her parents offered it to me, and they wanted me to be their second daughter.”

Now living with the Doll family, Prerna feels completely at home with them. She calls Melissa and Scott “mom and dad” while also calling their kids, Graci and Tony, her “sister and brother.”

Owning her positivity

Now a student at UC Blue Ash, Prerna is planning on studying business and is well on her way to transitioning to main campus in about two years. For now, she spends her time taking general education classes like English and math as well as dreaming about making a positive change for others.

“She is an intelligent woman and has a lot of potential to do whatever she sets her mind to,” says Michela Buccini, Prerna’s academic adviser at UCBA. Buccini has been able to get to know her during her first semester as a student in the Exploratory Studies program.

“It has been great to work with her, because I can see her passion and drive behind everything she does,” Buccini says. “Her courage to stand up for what she believes has definitely inspired me.”


Prerna Gandhi studing on the UC Blue Ash campus. photo/Pete Bender

Prerna Gandhi studying on the UC Blue Ash campus. photo/Pete Bender


When Prerna came to college, she noticed some stared or made judgments about what had happened to her. She had received similar treatment in the past, however. So she made up her mind to not let it affect her. Instead, she thinks of the ones who encourage her to be brave and reminds herself that whenever she started becoming positive, her life became positive, too.

Buccini says she is looking forward to “seeing Prerna grow, take on leadership roles and continue to inspire those around her — students, faculty and staff.”

Prerna’s dream is to become a motivational speaker.

“I want to motivate everyone on what the definition of beauty is,” Prerna says. “I want to prove it to so many people back in India.”

“I think if you see stories like mine, you can realize that nothing can ever stop you. After my incident, I learned your appearance doesn’t matter. You can do anything.”



LINK: Read feature of Prerna Gandhi on Cincinnati.com


Morgan Batanian is a senior journalism student and UC Magazine writing intern. 
Additional Credits: Video by Pete Bender/UC Blue Ash. Digital design by John Bach.