Inside a dimly lighted living room in the heart of the Javanese forest, Dede Koswara blankly examines his bulky hands, which have morphed to the size of catcher’s mitts. He shuffles along on blackened, bloated feet, a prisoner of his own mutinous body.
For years, the slender construction worker watched helplessly as his limbs broke out in a swath of grotesque bark-like warts that sapped his energy and limited his mobility.
At one point, he seemed to sprout contorted yellow-brown branches 3 feet long. Koswara, it appeared, was becoming half-plant — turning into the verdant green jungle around him.
His mysterious ailment cost him his marriage, career and independence. Begging for coins, he ended up in a traveling freak show, enduring stares, known as the Tree Man of Java.
“They say I’m not human,” the 39-year-old says softly. “Whatever they want to say, that’s fine. I guess I am a Tree Man.”
Then he got lucky. In 2007, after Koswara’s picture was posted on the Internet, a U.S. dermatologist who was consulted in the case determined that he suffered from a bizarre medical double whammy:
Koswara, he said, has the common human papillomavirus, a condition that usually causes small warts in sufferers. But Koswara has a rare immune deficiency that allowed the lesions to run wild, covering his face and eventually transforming his limbs with root-like barnacles known as cutaneous horns.
“I’d never seen anything like it; under all those warts was the outline of a human being,” said Anthony Gaspari, chairman of the department of dermatology at the University of Maryland‘s School of Medicine, who traveled here to examine Koswara.
Gaspari thought he could help. Working with local doctors, he designed a drug treatment program. Last year, Indonesian surgeons used an electric saw to cut 13 pounds of warts and decaying matter.
The results were astounding. For the first time in a decade, Koswara could make out his toes and fingers. Once again able to hold a pen, he began playing Sudoku and pecked out text messages on a cellphone. There was even talk about returning to work.
But complications developed when Koswara fell victim to a medical turf battle. Indonesian health officials suspected Gaspari of taking blood and tissue samples abroad without authorization to use them for commercial purposes. Although Gaspari later smoothed over the misunderstanding, he has since left the medical team.
Since then, Koswara has suffered yet another setback. After months in remission, his disease has begun to wage a counter-assault, the warts returning to cover his body at a faster rate than ever before.