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Baby Kate Ariaga from the Philippines underwent a surgery for a liver defect.
Baby Kate Ariaga from the Philippines underwent a surgery for a liver defect.

Stranded medical tourists seek way out

India has been a draw for patients from South Asia, West Asia and even developed countries

Six-year-old Aynur Bazargeldiyeva from Turkmenistan has been listening to stories—lots of stories. It’s been this way for nearly three months.

That’s how long little Aynur and his parents have been in India, which means keeping him busy with stories, far from familiar surroundings.

Aynur, who has a congenital heart defect, landed in India on 8 March with his parents. By that time he could barely walk a few steps. The paediatric cardiology team at Max Super Speciality Hospital in Delhi, under Dr K.S. Dagar, operated on him on 10 March and discharged him a week later.

The relieved family booked a flight back for 22 April, but the lockdown has stranded the family—like hundreds of medical tourists across India.

“We have three more children aged 5 and 2.5 years and a 7-month-old who are being looked after by my parents and our extended family," said Aynur’s father, Maskat, a businessman. “We are unable to communicate with the locals and are completely dependent on my friend and his neighbours who speak Turkman and Russian."

Catherine Ariaga has been in Delhi since 8 February with her 10-month-old baby, Kate, who needed a liver transplant. The 43-year-old single mum, who was the donor, and Kate were admitted to the Centre for Liver and Biliary Sciences, Max Healthcare, and the transplant was completed on 25 February.

Now they’re stuck.

“This was a planned surgery and with very clearly defined costs," said Ariaga. “I have a family back home, an elderly mother and my 17-year-old son. I have used up all my savings and do not think I can afford even basic medicines if the situation doesn’t normalize soon."

A woman from Rwanda who did not want to be named said she has been stranded since early March, when her eight-year-old daughter was operated upon at Medanta Hospital in Gurugram by Dr Neelam Mohan for a liver ailment.

“My country’s embassy knows. I am paying 1,800 per night. My daughter can’t eat Indian food. I have to cook and it is very difficult to get groceries and other things because of the lockdown," she said.

With India having emerged as a regional hub for health tourism—a sector worth $3 bn in 2015—doctors are concerned they can do little for stranded patients and their kin.

“We have worked hard to ensure that international patients face minimal problems in these very trying times," said Anas Abdul Wajid, senior director, sales and marketing, Max Healthcare.

Those stranded include 40 Yemeni soldiers at Fortis hospitals and 10 patients from Medanta Medicity, who have been treated and are waiting to leave.

India has been a draw for patients from South Asia, West Asia and even developed countries, said Piyush Tiwari, director, commercial and marketing, India Tourism Development Corp., adding the number of people arriving for treatments has grown annually at about 55% for the last several years.

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