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Transpersons pushed to brink as Covid impacts ‘life-changing’ surgeries

Superintendent Dr Akash Khobragade said until the pandemic subsides, the hospital will remain an exclusive Covid facility.

Written by Tabassum Barnagarwala | Mumbai |
June 13, 2021 1:23:24 am
transgender, Covid-19 India Second Wave, surgery, transgender surgery, transgender covid-19 vaccination, transgender coronavirus vaccination, Mumbai news, Mumbai latest news, Mumbai covid-19 cases, indian expressA special vaccination camp organised for the transgender community and sex workers in Gurugram. (Express Photo by Gajedra Yadav)

Every day Mumbai-based plastic surgeon Dr Rajat Kapoor receives a “good morning” text from a patient in Assam’s Hojai district. Once in a fortnight, other patients from Maharashtra and Bihar call. They all want to know when elective surgeries will resume.

Kapoor explains to them that the pandemic is not over yet. The patients reaching out to him are transpersons, who began gender reassignment surgery at St George’s Hospital before the pandemic began. A gender reassignment OPD, which began in 2018 at the hospital, has remained shut since last March after the hospital converted into a dedicated Covid facility. With its conversion, 18 transpersons, who had registered themselves for hormonal therapy, surgical procedures etc. have been left in the lurch. Those who approached the hospital later have been asked to wait.

In Assam, Rita Devi (34), a farmer, changed her name to Rit Kumar Singh last year. But he suffers from an identity crisis. In 2019, he decided to undergo a surgery to change his gender. He collected money through friends. With a friend, he took a train from Assam that reached Mumbai after four days. “My family was scared about the surgery. But I felt suffocated. I wanted to become a man,” Rit said. In 2019, he underwent a breast-removal surgery at St George’s. The next surgery – to remove female genital organs and penile reconstruction – was planned for March 2020. He visited Mumbai, but the lockdown and subsequent Covid wave forced him to return home. Since a year the wait continues.

Prosenjit Paul, a social worker and Rit’s friend in Assam, said it took multiple counselling sessions to prepare him for the gender-reassignment surgery. “Rita was restless after her breasts were removed. She wanted to fully convert her body into a man’s. But the pandemic changed all plans,” he said.

Paul is arranging finances for Rit to continue his hormonal therapy that helps grow facial hair and makes his voice masculine. For economically poor people like Rit, St George’s remains the only option. In 2018, the state-run facility started offering sex-reassignment surgery at low rates for those who could not afford private treatment. A genital-reconstruction surgery can cost anywhere between Rs 4-10 lakh in private hospitals, but here, it costs Rs 60,000-70,000.

Dr Kapoor began a weekly OPD soon after he operated upon Lalit Salve, a female Maharashtra cop, who underwent penile reconstruction in 2018. At least 18 people from Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra approached him. “We had begun hormonal therapy for a few of them. Counselling was on for all. There were at least two who underwent a surgery. And then, it came to a complete stop,” Dr Kapoor said.

Superintendent Dr Akash Khobragade said until the pandemic subsides, the hospital will remain an exclusive Covid facility. “This year, we shifted our unit to JJ Hospital (referral centre for St George’s) but the second wave began and work again stopped,” Dr Kapoor said. With oxygen shortage a crisis, all elective procedures had to stop. “It is a difficult situation we are in, but we have to wait,” Dr Kapoor said.

Tinesh Chopade, from Humsafar Trust that works with the LGBTQIA community, said several transpersons remain on hormonal therapy in absence of surgical intervention. “We have been supporting few with medicines since a year. It can be difficult to remain stuck halfway through the conversion. We are counselling them,” he said.

Bihar resident Usha Kumari, who changed her name to Krishna Kumar, lived in Mumbai for four months last year waiting for Covid cases to subside. Kumar spent Rs 3.5 lakh to remove breasts and genitals in a private hospital before he came to know of St George’s. Kumar worked as a commissioning agent in village Turki. “I lost the job. My mother is ill and I don’t have enough money to continue my hormonal therapy. I know this is not a life-saving surgery, but for me, it will shape my identity.”

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