Photo: Moses Ceaser /A patient at an eye camp in Aravind Eye Care Hospital in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.
By ESHA CHHABRA
December 15, 2011, 1:16 AM
This originally appeared in the New York Times’ India Ink Section.
At 58 years old, Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy decided he needed to develop a post-retirement plan to keep his mind engaged.
Dr. V as he is more commonly known, an ophthalmologist from a small rural village in South India, struggled with physical ailments throughout his life. He decided to take care of India’s poor and blind – for free.
In his retirement he built Aravind Eye Care Hospital, a world-class facility that’s mastered the art of low-cost, high-quality, high-volume care — a balance that has captured the attention of business professors, journalists, philanthropists, and aspiring doctors from around the globe. A new book, “Infinite Vision,” written by his grandniece, Pavithra Mehta, and Suchitra Shenoy, who refers to herself as an “adopted” member of Dr. V’s family, catalogs the journey of Dr. V and the story of a compassion-based yet sustainable business.
He began his retirement project out in the field, in schools converted into clinics. Dr. V and his team began working at one in the morning when Madurai, Tamil Nadu’s seething temperatures cooled, making it more suitable to perform cataract surgeries. His team of countless family members toiled beside him.
The authors write passionately about a man who admired the McDonald’s model of scale, and aspired to bring it to health care by restructuring costs and needs. Everyone from former Indian President Dr. Abdul Kalam to poor local farmers has been treated at Aravind. In its 35 years of existence, they’ve attended to a staggering 32 million patients, many of whom paid very little or none at all.
Dr. V had no professional business acumen, but a strong sense of “internal clarity,” the authors write, and a resilient team behind Dr. V’s success.
“We have to remember that this didn’t happen overnight,” explains Ms. Mehta. Ms. Shenoy adds that “this was a series of small steps, small changes over a long period of time.” Yet each step of Dr. V is metaphoric for his journey. Ms. Mehta and Ms. Shenoy narrate this in the book:
Dr. V wears thick-soled black sandals. His toes, like his fingers, have been twisted permanently out of shape by rheumatoid arthritis, so something as simple as slipping in and out of this footwear proves no small feat. Using the end of his walking stick, he spearholds the top of each sandal in place to ease his foot in. A bright green rubber band has been snapped, twisted, and tied around the toe-hold. He alternates the pair of footwear with a nearly identical one that sports a red rubber band. Dr. V is careful not to wear out either pair too soon, hence the rubber-band identification tags — a trivial detail loaded with his distinct personality; his utter lack of vanity, his frugality, his passion for order and disciple in the smallest details.
Dr. G. Natchiar, Dr. V’s younger sister (by 22 years) and his closest companion in his final years, is at the helm of Aravind now. The authors write openly about the struggles that the family endured to support Dr. V’s vision, pouring out their life savings, and quitting their jobs elsewhere to work 18-hour days to build the business.
When asked about the challenges in setting up Aravind, Dr. Natchiar sums it up simply. “When you have a determination in your mind, you can break through all these challenges, isn’t it?” And she repeats, “Isn’t it?”
Researchers, students and professors from leading universities in the United States have visited Madurai to see the hospital’s three-tiered model firsthand. As Dr. Natchiar explains, the hospital charges the rich a full price, the struggling, a heavily subsidized price, and the poor, nothing at all. While the full price may come with a private room and a fancier meal, the quality of medical treatment will be exactly the same as what the other two poorer patients will receive.
Dr. V passed away more than five years ago. But Aravind continues to grow. His team performs approximately 1,000 surgeries each day, giving sight to India’s more than 12 million blind citizens.