On Thursday, January 19th we hopped in the car and traveled 3 hours from Chennai to Pondicherry. After months of correspondence, we were going to meet Dr. Venkatesh, Chief Medical Officer, and his fellow staff at Aravind Eye Care System. “Founded in 1976 by Dr. G. Venkataswamy, a man known to most as Dr. V., Aravind Eye Hospital started as an eleven bed hospital manned by 4 medical officers. Dr. V. saw the potential for what Aravind is today, one of the largest facilities in the world for eye care. Over the years, this organization has evolved into a sophisticated system dedicated to compassionate service for sight. The Aravind Eye Care System now serves as a model, for India, and the rest of the world.” We were excited to meet the staff behind such an impressive organization.
We arrived at Aravind, a huge campus of buildings. The scenery was beautiful, at least we thought so. After talking with staff, we learned that a cyclone had passed through a week prior and uprooted most of their trees and destroyed their gardens and vegetation. Their employees had spent significant time cleaning up the debris left from the storm. We learned that Aravind Eye Hospital is a self-sustaining community. All water is recycled and filtered on-site, gardens located throughout the property provide fruit and vegetables for all of their meals, and all of the physicians and nurses live in apartments less than one block from the main hospital.
After walking through the entrance and down one of the main corridors, we met Mr. Poobalan, Administration Manager. He sat with us and told us about his experience with Dr. V. Mr. Poobalan had the opportunity to work with Dr. V for a few years before his death. In that short time, it was clear that Dr. V’s impression on Mr. Poobalan was not only a lasting one but completely life changing. Mr. Poobalan stated, “Dr. V was a hard working man of principle. His hands were disfigured from arthritis but that never slowed him in his work. Dr. V was a highly regarded man; he made everyone feel special. If you were to schedule a meeting with him, by the time you sat down with him Dr. V would know your entire life story. He would have researched you and found out as much about you as possible. After seeing his dedication to work, I was inspired to do the same. I left retirement and dedicated the rest of my life to helping others through my work here at Aravind.”
Priya walked into the room. A young lady with a bright smile, she informed us that she would be our tour guide. We started the tour by watching a short documentary on Aravind. About half way through, Priya turned off the documentary and informed us that Dr. Venkatesh had just called and requested that we join him in the Operating Room. Craig and I looked at each other and smiled… we weren’t expecting to have the opportunity to go into an operating room…this is going to be cool!
We walked through the long hallways and ventured upstairs where all of the operating rooms were. We changed into scrubs and flip flops and entered the OR to see our first cataract surgery. Dr. Venkatesh had joined us and was giving us a step by step play of what we were about to see. Two patients were lying on tables with blankets covering their bodies. The ophthalmologist was operating on the first patient’s cataract. Her eye was displayed on the monitor in the operating room. We were able to watch every step of the cataract surgery… 7 minutes later, the ophthalmologist was done and she had begun operating on the other patient. Right after finishing the first cataract surgery, the nurses sat the patient up and walked her out of the room. I was amazed. Dr. Venkatesh walked over and picked up the cup that was holding the cataract. He asked me to touch it. I did and was amazed at the size and consistency. The cataract was like a small, oddly-shaped rock. Apparently, this one was quite mature which is why it required 7 minutes to be removed. Typically, Aravind physicians can perform cataract surgeries in less than 5 minutes. We were amazed.
We finished touring the other operating rooms, watching cataract surgeries and learning about the process of delivering high quality care to a high volume of patients. For the next 2 hours, we toured the campus, seeing hundreds of patients coming and going. We then joined the staff for lunch in their guest house. We learned about their daily routines, their passion for providing eye care and their dedication to Aravind. Each physician at the table worked a minimum of 6 days a week. They told us about their training efforts to teach physicians around the world about the Aravind model. The physicians frequently traveled to satellite hospitals in Africa. They shared their experiences with us and we sat there like sponges….absorbing every piece of information that flowed through their mouths. After eating and having great conversation, it was time to travel to the primary care center 45 minutes away in a nearby village.
Upon arriving, we were greeted by the 2 staff members at the center. It was a tiny room tucked away in a building. Pigs and cattle were roaming around outside. Patients were slowly walking in and out of this small, 10’ by 10’ eye care center. We conversed with the staff, inquired about their services, protocol for treating patients with various needs and their training with Aravind. We walked into the eye exam room and found a computer set up with a webcam…. Telemedicine? No way! In the middle of a rural village in India, inside of a tiny eye exam room, medical staff were taking advantage of up and coming technology to deliver more efficient health care to their patients. Awesome. Aravind is truly dedicated to its mission.
Craig and I left with a whole new level of confidence in the impact SOLO will have in the lives of others… we had formed partnerships with two amazing organizations – L.V. Prasad Eye Institute and Aravind Eye Care System. Our Vision to Give had just begun.