Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy

by David Kemker

DR. G. VENKATASWAMY (www.aravind.org)
DR. G. VENKATASWAMY (www.aravind.org)

His full name is Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, but to more than 2 million surgical patients and 16,000,000 outpatients, he's known affectionately as "Dr. V." The 83 year-old chairman of Aravind Eye Hospitals, Dr. Venkataswamy is my hero.

Dr. V. was born in 1918 to a farming family in a small village in South India. He received his medical degree from the Stanley Medical College in Chennai and joined the Indian Army Medical Corps to practice obstetrics. It was about this time that tragedy visited Dr. V. in the form of rheumatoid arthritis, a degenerative disease that attacked his hands. Although unable to practice obstetrics, Dr. V. did not give up. He began studying ophthalmology and had instruments specially designed for his arthritic hands - each one custom-made to fill a specific need. These instruments enabled him to perform as many as 100 cataract surgeries a day. He quickly became the most admired cataract surgeon in India.

Dr. V. continued to perform eye surgeries at this incredible rate for nearly 25 years when he saw something that would change him and the world of ophthamology forever: the golden arches of a McDonald's restaurant. That's when Dr. Venkataswamy first thought to himself, "If McDonald's can sell billions of burgers and Coca-Cola can sell billions of sodas, why can't I sell millions of sight-restoring operations?" Two years later, Dr. V. opened Aravind Eye Hospital: 11 beds in a rented house in Madurai, India.

Today, there are some 3600 beds in 5 Aravind Eye Hospitals that perform more than 200,000 operations each year. And 70% of the patients pay little or nothing. This means that literally hundreds of thousands of India's poor have been granted the gift of sight. How? Dr. V. has lowered the cost of cataract operations to nearly $10 per surgery - compared to almost $1650 in the U.S. He did this by re-organizing how cataract surgeries are done. By training a team of paramedicals to do 70% of the work required in each surgery, doctors are freed up to do a great many more of them. In addition, Aravind Eye Hospitals produce their own low-cost intra-ocular lenses and other ophthalmic supplies to make eye-care affordable and mass-producible. When this incredibly low operating cost is combined with innovative payment plans, the result is universally available, financially sustainable health care. All of the treatments performed at Aravind Eye Hospitals are financed by those patients who are most able to afford them - roughly 30% - who seek out Aravind's world-renowned quality and happily pay competitive prices. As such, Aravind Hospitals have become a business model for health care systems the world over.

Accounting for the success of Aravind Eye Hospitals solely in terms of dollars and cents paints only half the picture. The people of Aravind: the doctors, paramedicals and staff who have committed themselves to this labor of love are the real story. Reaching out to the community with an open invitation for all to come and be healed is their message to the world, a lesson for each and every one of us.

And behind it all is a white-haired man with misshapen hands. Dr. V. still works most days at Aravind. And if you get there early, you'll find him in prayer, preparing himself, as he puts it, "… to be a better instrument for the divine…"

An instrument custom-made, no doubt, to fill a very specific need.

Related Links

ARAVIND EYE HOSPITAL - Mission: To eradicate needless blindness by providing appropriate, compassionate and quality eye care for all.
Lighthouse International - VisionConnection is the one-stop, accessible and interactive global Internet portal for people who are partially sighted or blind, the professionals who serve them, the families and friends who support them -- and anyone looking for the latest information on vision impairment, its prevention and vision rehabilitation.
One World Sight Project - GOAL: To provide sight to many of the world’s backlog of 25 million curable blind by financially supporting the ongoing efforts of the world’s eye care organizations with proven track records.
- The current major service commitment of Lions Clubs International is the prevention and reversal of blindness. This program takes the name of SightFirst, and includes the activities of every club working to control blindness. SightFirst is an international program dedicated to controlling blindness worldwide. Clubs work individually or through their districts to prevent and reverse the major causes of blindness in their area.

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