There's a line of questioning one runs through during a new encounter: What's your name? Where are you from? What do you do?
I answer these (introductory) questions with an ease I didn't possess years back when I lived in New York: I was unemployed, learning to live with a progressive condition called limb-girdle muscular dystrophy and unsure of my life's trajectory. I migrated to warmer climates during the colder winter months and had an unsteady sense of home.
Despite what Indians may/may not believe about healthcare in America, the west is not always the best.
Lately, my go-to opener is a series of yes and no statements—yes, I'm from the US but I live and work in Mumbai now. No, my family lives in New Jersey, I moved here alone. No, I'm not married. I didn't move here for a man or job, I moved to Mumbai for physiotherapy and domestic help. No, I can't get the same treatment in America, that's why I'm here. Yes, I'm aware Indians want to go to America and I'm doing the reverse commute.
Indians respond with curiosity, shock, pity (the worst), admiration, compassion, and recently lots of confusion. I understand their curiosity and confusion—not everyone is afforded the opportunities and freedoms I've been fortunate to experience. Though we've just met, they behave as if they know what's best for me. At times this can be sweet, concern for a random person. More often than not, I find myself defending my decision to live in India for medical reasons, a move that gets exhausting. Allow me to explain.
I first came to India in 2008 with my doctor-father, where we travelled the country to explore alternative treatment options for an incurable disease. Some helped, many turned out to be complete scams. Eventually we came across manual physiotherapy and found it to be immensely beneficial in maintaining my functionality. Life was less stressful in India: we hired a full-service maid who accompanied me to physiotherapy along with a driver, luxuries we didn't have in America. Financials and affordability are subjective matters here and Mumbai, of all the cities in India, is costly as hell. But when we found what worked for me medically, the good outweighed the bad.
It's safe to say India has done more to help me manage my condition these past few years than the American healthcare system.
Despite what Indians may/may not believe about healthcare in America, the west is not always the best. America is no doubt home to world geniuses, brilliant physicians and state-of-the-art facilities but this doesn't necessarily translate when comes to human care. In my case, the system fails to cater to neuromuscular diseases and the sliding scale of its many manifestations, especially "incurable" ones like muscular dystrophy. We're left with little to no options for maintenance therapies. With high healthcare costs in the US and uncertain times ahead, the number of individuals exploring medical tourism outside their native lands is bound to be on the rise.
Everyday people uproot their lives for access to healthcare they can't get in their home countries. I've met expat families in Indian hospitals undergoing similar treatments to mine; American friends with sick parents or siblings forced to travel outside the country for care. I'd stay in India for months at a time for various treatments before returning to the US, only to witness a slow decline in my health. My physio routine was too time- and labour-intensive for therapists in the US: sessions consisted of 20 minutes worth of exercises before my therapist nicely sent me along with a list of at-home exercises (most of which I couldn't perform on my own), taking her next patient in and booking my follow-up. I've worked with wonderful and highly skilled therapists too but the once my allotted sessions ran out, the upkeep became impossible. I required the assistance of a home aide but my dedicated efforts to stay functional worked against me—insurance denied coverage for my main two needs.
They say health is wealth, that it's the most important thing in life. Then why was it so impossible to get the care I needed?
These days when someone asks me what I'm doing in Mumbai, I keep it short: "I'm here for my health, I feel good here. That's it."
Eight years of on/off medical travels to India have proven each time that in spite of leaving behind what's known and comfortable, my wellbeing lies in India. The growing phenomenon of medical tourism involves a person leaving his or her home country to permanently or temporarily live in a foreign country for medical purposes and otherwise. Forbes India called medical tourism in India "the next crown jewel." India, Singapore and Thailand are the most popular destinations within Asia for medical tourism. Low cost of treatment and access to well-trained doctors are only some of the reasons these countries serve as ideal environments for those seeking longer-term medical care. When people are confused over my choice to live in India over America it's because they don't know or understand its true workings. (This only speaks to outpatient or private care in India; I'm sure Indian healthcare comes with significant flaws as well). It's safe to say India has done more to help me manage my condition these past few years than the American healthcare system.
When all the frustration faded and reality set in, I was led back to India; a place that offered me quality, outpatient manual therapy and all the domestic help I ever needed. Here, I wasn't a name slotted in a timetable. My physio sessions extended beyond one hour with therapists even allowing me to continue on my own accord if I wished.
Doing all of this hasn't been easy. Domestic help requires constant vigilance and comes with its own host of dos and don'ts. Long-term physio commands extreme patience and compromise along with a holistic understanding/acceptance of the human body and mind. It has been tremendously challenging and because of this immensely rewarding. Knowing I have access to the support I need in India makes me feel lighter, more limber and provides both my family and me peace of mind.
These days when someone asks me what I'm doing in Mumbai, I keep it short: "I'm here for my health, I feel good here. That's it." I'm proud of the special life I've built here and grateful beyond belief for a supportive family. I look forward to my weekly yoga sessions at home with my long-time instructor, where we relish my small advances toward betterment. Perhaps the place we call home isn't what we've always known but simply where we can say we feel our best: happiest, healthiest and most at ease.