New Delhi: When Pakistani national Mohammed Zubair headed back home in 2013, he looked physically frail but he could finally breathe easy with a new heart. Two years later, the religious teacher from Lahore still dials the now familiar numbers of the transplant surgeons from Chennai who promised not to give up on him when others did.
While Modi’s impromptu trip to Pakistan is being described amidst much pomp as a diplomatic masterstroke by many, there is a less ostentatious exchange between the two countries. And the people doing the talks don’t wear khadi kurta or pinstriped suits – they wear white coats and their hands are trained to heal. Equipped with scalpels, stethoscopes, pills and other medical paraphernalia, doctors in India have been visiting and holding camps in remote areas in Pakistan to salve wounds and undertake surgical procedures.
In the last five years, there has been a sharp spiral in the number of patients coming from Pakistan to India for treatment. At least 70% of them come for liver transplants, with Hepatitis C being the most common cause for the organ’s failure, followed by Hepatitis B, autoimmune liver diseases and congenital diseases in children.
Apollo Hospitals, Delhi gets about 50 patients from Pakistan every month. “These patients come here as the cost of an organ transplant here is half of that in Pakistan. Moreover, there are very few centres there that undertake transplant procedures,” said Apollo Hospitals senior manager Ajay Bhardwaj who helps patients from across the border. He said these patients also choose India over other neighbouring countries as they find it easier to converse. A report in Dawn, a Pakistan daily, estimated that more than 500 Pakistanis had received liver transplantation in India so far.
In India, most of these patients head to Delhi, owing to good connectivity, and Tamil Nadu, which leads the country in organ transplants. “Most of the patients who head south are those needing a heart transplant. While Delhi does only three or four heart transplants a year, Tamil Nadu does 40 a year,” said Dr K R Balakrishnan, director, cardiac sciences, Fortis Malar Hospital. Of this, about 10% have been from Pakistan in the past three years. While adult patients wait for about three months for a donor organ, it takes longer for children owing to limited paediatric organ donations.
The ties between patients and doctors don’t end once they go home. “Transplant procedures require frequent follow-ups, but since many of these patients don’t have access to healthcare facilities, we call them and check on them,” said cardiac surgeon Dr Devi Shetty who sees a sizeable number of Pakistanis in his hospital on the outskirts of Bangalore. Hospitals also send drugs that are unavailable or expensive to their patients.
Doctors say the journey for Pakistani patients and their families is not easy. “They usually issue visas only to the patient and a relative. Sometimes he or she may require more than one care giver,” said Dr Balakrishnan. Patients also face hurdles when they have to extend their stay in the hospital. “The government has been supportive in patient care, logistics and visa support, but a lot more needs to be done,” he said.
While patients head back to Pakistan with a new lease of life, a handful of senior surgeons in India have fond memories of their visit to the neighbouring country. “Around three years ago I went to Lahore with a team. In 10 days we did more than 15 procedures, including open heart surgeries and heart valve replacement. Some of them were people who had almost given up on being able to live healthy again,” said heart surgeon Dr K M Cherian of Frontier Lifeline Hospital, Chennai.
He did his first surgery of a person from Pakistan nearly 20 years ago. “When the Kargil war was happening in 1999, we had a 15-year-old from Pakistan in our operation theatre getting a valve replacement from a graft donated by an Indian,” he said.
Source: Report by Ektha Ann John (TNN)