It was his life’s race against time. Lahori resident Aslam needed an urgent liver transplant for his 18-year-old daughter Saima. He knew he had no choice but to look outside his resources, and get her the best possible specialised treatment.
But unlike other Pakistanis and Indians, Aslam could not pack his family's bags and leave for Europe or the US. He could have followed that advice if the cost of treatment in another country had not been prohibitive.
Yet, it wasn’t too long before he found himself applying for a visa for his daughter’s treatment. Soon, he and his family landed in another country one closest to home but where they least imagined going to for help: India.
Without a language barrier, and keeping the political rhetoric aside, a Pakistani can literally get a new lease on life across the border.
The turning point in Saima's life came when Aslam found a medical travel facilitator online.
On the one hand, the world of Google facilitates panic when it diagnoses a terminal illness instead of a cold; on the other hand, the same world allows us to connect with strangers who can prove to be game changers.
The next few days went by in a whirlwind. The Indian company built Aslam’s confidence by getting him in touch with multiple doctors for a second opinion, and even went on to facilitate the family’s visa.
Aslam's story isn’t the only one where a patient crosses the India-Pakistan border for treatment.
Last year, five-year-old Basma from Pakistan had also been granted a visa to India for an emergency transplant surgery. There are now many tales like hers, sometimes with footnotes on how they were financially helped by Indians.
Cross-border healthcare marred by visa woes
Big Indian hospitals like the gigantic Apollo in Delhi (where it is easier to get lost than to get treatment) report around 500 patients from Pakistan every month. Many of the unwell need a liver transplant, which costs between 20 to 32 lakh rupees.
There are also several who fly to the Southern city of Chennai, which is considered the centre for any heart-related treatment.
But of course, God proposes, man disposes. Nothing binds Indians and Pakistanis like our shared visa woes.
Hopefully, getting an Indian visa to travel for health reasons will soon become easier. As the Indian government eases up norms to promote medical tourism, patients from almost 150 countries will be able to send their applications for e-visas. However, the process will not be flawless, since it takes years for a system to change, and even longer for mistrust to dissipate.
Take a look: To India, for a liver
Already, with hope in their hearts and finances on a budget, countless families are willing to go to India, where doctors and families are welcoming them with open arms. Without any language barrier, and keeping the political rhetoric aside, a Pakistani can literally get a new lease on life across the border.
Why choose India for healthcare
No one in the country has a correct figure on the number of people who visit for medical tourism every year. A million may be an exaggeration but not by far.
India is slowly challenging Asia’s traditional medical strongholds like Thailand and Singapore. Before medical tourism, the country was struggling with something entirely different.
Encouraged by movies like Slumdog Millionaire, gawking foreigners spent their precious itinerary on staring at impoverished families, their faces lit with amazement at the sight of slums. Poverty tourism is nothing new but for a developing country like India, trying to make itself a relevant investment hub, this always struck a sour note.
The reverse health drain evident in the country stems from several developments, competitive treatment costs, quick medical assistance, unlike in the west, and a burgeoning infrastructure that has many business houses investing in health care.
Recently, I was at a much smaller clinic in Delhi, and my sister pointed out: even that felt like being in a lavish hotel. With the healthcare sector pushing back, the joke is now on the first world.
Its residents are among the hordes heading to India, some for even basic affordable dental care. Many prefer to travel on a tourist visa, and some seek wellness rather than treatment.
Health farms are the other big business. If one is feeling tired, there is the option of yoga in the Himalayas, and if one prefers socialising, every second metro city offers detox centres which in earlier times were solely associated with those who couldn’t hold their drinks but have now expanded to anything from meditation to literally paying for some fresh air.
In other words, at these places you could be spending through your pocket but without finding the real meaning of your life!
But global healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry is as much a big business as it is political. Getting sucked in is easy till you realise not everyone cares about your health.
Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy was as controversial as it was shocking; yet, because of the publicity it generated, many paranoid women spent their dollars getting the same treatment — even though many did not need it.
In the end, the business always wins.
A word of caution: when the going gets good, there will always be some quacks waiting to take advantage of the unsuspecting. So even if your neighbour made a successful medical trip to India, the research is yours because the onus is also on you.
Getting a personal connect — that intangible bind between an Indian and a Pakistani — is the bonus. And there are many such stories in our hospitals.
Amidst the Russians and the Afghanis that are also a common sight, was the tragic tale of Abiha, a 13-year-old patient from Pakistan, who passed away in India.
Despite their loss, such was her family’s gratitude for the doctors and the family they lived with that an emotional father insisted his daughter was meant to take her last breath in India.