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Under Covid shadow, medical tourism begins a slow recovery

According to the Ministry of Tourism, the country got 6.97 lakh foreign patients on medical visa in 2019, accounting for 6.9 per cent of foreign tourist arrivals.

Written by Tabassum Barnagarwala | Mumbai |
Updated: October 9, 2020 7:22:58 am
Sanna Kattelus, 43, in Mumbai. (Exprress photo by Tabassum Barnagarwala)

Twenty days after she landed in Mumbai with almost zero sensation in her left arm and a degenerative spine, Canadian national Sanna Kattelus on Thursday finally bid goodbye to her sea-facing room in Taj Lands End Hotel where she had been recuperating for the last few days.

The 43-year-old had obtained an emergency medical visa to undergo surgery in Mumbai under a strict Covid-19 protocol.

“This is my first visit to the city. There was so much to see, but I didn’t leave the hotel except for my trips to the hospital. Maybe next time,” she said. A black brace that she used for two years to support her spine, lay discarded in the hotel room.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, the country got 6.97 lakh foreign patients on medical visa in 2019, accounting for 6.9 per cent of foreign tourist arrivals. While there are no official numbers yet for 2020, by all estimates, Covid brought the medical tourism sector to a halt in mid-March, when international travel froze and major centres such as Delhi and Mumbai turned into hotspots.

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But now, with the country slowing opening up its skies through air bubbles with select countries, private hospitals have gradually restarted admitting emergency cases from abroad.

“Because Mumbai has so many Covid-19 cases, several of our international patients had put their surgeries on hold,” said Dr Santosh Shetty, executive director at Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani hospital.


Over the last month, however, the hospital has been getting its first set of patients from abroad, especially to its Centre for Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. Recently, two patients from Oman flew in in a private air-ambulance for stroke-rehab.

In Nanavati hospital, a foreign national, a sea farer, was flown in with chronic kidney disease.

Any visit involves a lot of paperwork. In Kattelus’s case, she said she submitted over 150 pages with references and tests to the Indian consulate in Vancouver to obtain a visa. She arrived in Mumbai on September 18, and had to apply for special permission to cut down the seven-day quarantine to two days, before undergoing a surgery on September 21 in Lilavati hospital.


“In her case, we simply could not wait further,” said her treating neurosurgeon Dr Atul Goel, adding that Covid tests were done beforehand.

Kattelus had met with a car accident in November 2017, leading to craniocervical instability in the area where the skull meets the spine. She had gradually lost sensation in her left arm and had to eventually give up her career as a physiotherapist.

Kattelus visited over 20 specialists in Canada and USA before being referred to Goel, who is renowned for his surgical technique on the craniovertebral junction.

Kattelus was supposed to fly to India in May but the surgery got indefinitely postponed due to the pandemic. Over the last few months, she started having blackouts and suffered intermittent hearing loss. Besides, the numbness spread from her left arm to the other limbs.

So when flights resumed between Canada and India in early August, Kattelus decided to take the risk.


Once in Mumbai, doctors visited Kattelus at the hotel for a check-up and decided that she needed an immediate surgery.

“The technique I use is not performed anywhere else and that is why she decided to fly all the way to India. We corrected the deformity in the spine, and now she can walk straight,” neurosurgeon Goel said.


On October 3, her stitches removed, Kattelus celebrated her birthday in the hotel room, watching the Bandra sea stretch out from behind her glass window.

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First published on: 09-10-2020 at 01:00:56 am
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