Saturday, July 08, 2006

Yesterday, a great hero passed away

Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy (Dr. V), founder of the Aravind Eye Care System, passed away yesterday at the age of 86. The Hindu has a short obituary.

I have never met Dr. V, nor have I visited Aravind. However, I have heard so much (especially from P, my wife and an ophthalmologist) about this remarkable man and the great institution he built. Dr. V is recognized now as a pioneer and innovator, and his contributions have received rich tributes not just from the beneficiaries of the Aravind's 'system', but also from health organizations (WHO), philanthropic institutions (Lions International), NGOs (SEVA), and B-Schools (Harvard). Let me quote from a few online sources.

First, this is what Arun Shourie says about Dr. V in an Indian Express column:

Dr G Venkatswamy retires from government service at the age of 58 in 1976. He has a dream: he yearns to provide eye care to the masses. But he has no resources. He calls on one mill owner in the Coimbatore area after another for donations. A week’s trudging around yields Rs 2,000. He persuades his sister and brother-in-law, and two other ophthalmologists in the family to give up their practice and join him. They rent a house. As the numbers they serve multiply, they secure an acre of undeveloped land. They need to expand beyond the 30-bed facility they have set up. Bank after bank rejects their applications because they are not ‘‘credit-worthy’’. They mortgage family property to raise Rs 23 lakhs. A British doctor affiliated to the Royal Commonwealth Society for the Blind gives them another lakh. Today Dr Venkatswamy’s hospitals handle 14 lakh visits by out-patients; they perform over two lakh major eye surgeries every year. They conduct over 1,500 eye camps, examine over four lakh patients in them, and then conduct over 90,000 eye surgeries on those among the patients who need operations.

Aravind has extensive links with NGOs such as the SEVA Foundation:

Initially, Seva assisted Aravind in establishing essential finance, community outreach, and staffing structures. Now this dynamic partnership focuses on human resources development. The Lions Aravind Institute of Community Ophthalmology engages Seva volunteers (see Volunteer) as trainers for staff from Aravind and other eye care programs throughout Asia. Seva and Aravind provide on-site training and consultation to eye hospitals that seek to provide high volume, sustainable services for their communities. Seva addresses childhood blindness and well-being by supporting the Aravind Centre for Mothers, Children, and Community Health.

Just how great is the institution that he built? The Guardian says it's a great example of 'social entrepreneurship'. The Harvard Business School has two case studies (summaries are available here, and here). From the second case study (2000):

[Since first Case in 1993] Aravind had also made progress in two other key areas. First, it set up its own manufacturing facility, Aurolab, to produce an intraocular lens (IOL), given that cataract surgery using IOL implants was most successful in treating blindness. Second, Aravind created the Lions Aravind Institute of Community Ophthalmology, a training facility designed to educate health-related and managerial personnel in the development and implementation of efficient and sustainable eye care programs in India, Asia, and Africa.

And, here's something from this profile:

... Taking its services to the doorstep of rural India, the Aravind Eye Care System has become self-sustaining, treating over 1.4 million patients each year, two-thirds of them for free. It is an international resource and training center that is revolutionizing hundreds of eye care programs in developing countries. With less than 1% of the country's ophthalmic manpower, Aravind performs about 5% of all cataract surgeries in India. Since its inception, Aravind has performed more than 2 million surgeries and handled over 16 million outpatients. ...
[bold emphasis added]

Finally, getting back to the man himself, this is from this profile in Fast Company (2001):

... Ride for seven hours with an eye doctor who is 82. Ask him to tell you the secret, to answer the question, to solve the mystery. Listen carefully to what he says. Watch everything he does. And learn.

You know he knows. He's an eye surgeon -- a man of vision. He has learned how to deliver perfection, and to do it despite crippling obstacles. As a young man, a brand-new obstetrician, he contracted rheumatoid arthritis and watched helplessly as his fingers slowly twisted, fused, and grew useless for delivering babies. So he started over, this time studying ophthalmology. He managed to design his own instruments to suit his hands, and these tools enabled him to do as many as 100 surgeries a day. He became the most admired cataract surgeon in India.

Twenty-five years later, he confronted another potentially crippling obstacle: retirement. In 1976, facing the prospect of social shelving at age 57, he opened a 12-bed eye hospital in his brother's home in Madurai, India. Today, he runs five hospitals that perform more than 180,000 operations each year. Seventy percent of his patients are charity cases; the remaining 30% seek him out and pay for his services because the quality of his work is world-class. He is a doctor to the eyes and a leader to the soul.

Well, the last sentence says it all:

Dr. V was a doctor to the eyes and a leader to the soul.

Good bye, Dr. V.


  1. Anonymous said...

    This is very sad news. Dr V was one of the "New Heroes" recognized by the recent US Public Broadcasting (PBS) series, which was narrated by Robert Redford and supported by the Skoll Foundation.

    Dr. V is a man who refused to take no for an answer when he set out to do what had been thought impossible.

    It is people like Dr V who led us to create GlobalGiving.

    By special arrangement with PBS and the Skoll Foundation, people around the world are able to directly support the legacy of Dr. V. at the Aravind Eye Hospital via GlobalGiving.

    I am going to make my own donation.

    For more info:

  2. Anonymous said...

    thanks for the links; here's another post on Dr.V.