Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy His full name, 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..
At the age of 58, in 1976, Dr. Govindappa opened the Aravind Eye hospital in Madurai. He was assisted by his sister and her husband who were both eye surgeons. Soon after, the size of the hospital grew manifold and became a 250 bed eye hospital. The assembly line operation which was called the Aravind model was now in place.
Through his efforts, he was able to cure more than 2.4 million patients. The best part of his efforts was that it was all directed to the poor people who could not get proper health care. Today, the hospital caters to the rich and poor alike. Those who are willing to pay more are afforded certain facilities like private wards for faster recovery and hot meals. The people of India can never forget the noble deeds of Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, especially what he did for the have-nots.
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.
The problem of avoidable blindness rapidly escalating remained a major cause of concern in the Indian healthcare scenario. In a developing country the government alone cannot meet the health needs of all owing to a number of challenges like growing population, inadequate infrastructure, low per capita income, aging population, diseases in epidemic proportions and illiteracy.
Realizing this, Dr. Venkataswamy wished to establish an alternate health care model that could supplement the efforts of the government and also be self supporting. Following his retirement at age 58 in 1976, he established the GOVEL Trust under which Aravind Eye Hospitals were founded.
The hospitals were named after Sr Aurobindo, one of the 20th century’s most revered spiritual leaders. In essence, Sri Aurobindo’s teachings insist on transcendence into a heightened state of consciousness and becoming better instruments for the divine force to work through.
Intelligence and capability are not enough. There must also be the joy of doing something beautiful. Being of service to God and humanity means going well beyond the sophistication of the best technology, to the humble demonstration of courtesy and compassion to each patient. – Dr.G.Venkataswamy
Dr. G. Venkataswamy or ‘Dr. V’ as he is affectionately called is the founder chairman of Aravind Eye Hospital. He was born on October 1, 1918 in Vadamalapuram, a village eighty kilometers from Madurai. He began his university education in the American college, Madurai from which he graduated with a B.A. in chemistry. He received his medical degree from Stanley Medical College at Chennai in 1944.
Despite his condition, he returned to medical school and earned his diploma and masters degree in Ophthalmology. Through his hard work and determination, Dr. V learned how to hold a scalpel and perform cataract surgery. Eventually, he was able to perform more than one hundred surgeries a day.
Dr. V joined the faculty at Madurai Medical College, a government school , where he was appointed head of the Department of Ophthalmology and later served as Vice- Dean of the college. During his period of government service, Dr. V introduced a number of innovative programmes to deal with the problem of blindness in India.
Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy developed the outreach eye camp programmes in 1960, a rehabilitation centre for the blind in 1966, and the creation of an ophthalmic Assistants Training programme in 1973. In his clinical work, Dr. V personally performed over one hundred thousand successful eye surgeries.
In recognition of his work in the fight against blindness, Dr, V received the Padmashree award in 1973 by the Government of India. This award is given to citizens, who have rendered outstanding service to their nation. In 1976, after mandatory retirement from government service at age of 58, Dr. V resolved to continue his work in eye care delivery. With support from his family, he founded Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai , a non profit institution dedicated to providing high quality eye care to all patients who come to its door.
Dr. V blends his spiritual life to his daily work remarkably well. As a young man, he became a disciple of Sri Aurobindo, an Indian philosopher and saint who lived in service to God and man. Aravind was founded on this principle of service and continues to be guided by it.
In 1991, as part of its Wit lectures series, Dr. V was invited to deliver an address at the Harvard Divinity School on the theme of living a spiritual life in the contemporary age. The address entitled ‘Illuminated Spirit’, has been published and read by many people.
Aravind Eye Care System will remember the year 2006 as the year it lost its founder , the legendary Padmashree Dr. G. Venkataswamy on July 7. Dr V’s life was a long dedication to serving the Divine through work in the field of eye care. His tireless vision, inspiring leadership as well as his selflessness and humility shaped Aravind into all that it is today.