Journey to the East: Seeing Blindness Beneath The Banyan Trees
By Deb Galardi, Vice Chair Seva Foundation
In December 2015, I joined fellow Seva board members Lisa Laird (Chair) and Gary Hahn (former Chair) on a visit to Aravind Eye Hospital in Tamil Nadu, India. The founder of Aravind, Dr. Venkataswamy, commonly referred to as Dr. V, was also a founding member of Seva and served on Seva’s Board of Directors. Aravind and Seva have worked collaboratively for over 35 years to eliminate curable blindness.
My primary goal for the visit was to gain insight into how Seva and our partners can most effectively expand access to eye care services. Further, I wanted to experience first-hand the quality and compassionate service that I understood to be the foundation of Aravind’s work.
Meeting the Need
“To see all as one. To give sight for all.” - Dr. V
Current estimates put the number of visually impaired people worldwide at 285 million, with 90% living in developing countries. With 63 million people who are visually impaired in India, Dr. V understood that addressing the need locally would require high volume service delivery at an affordable cost. Over the course of our visit we met with staff at hospitals, vision and training centers and toured an intraocular lens (IOL) manufacturing facility (Aurolab), to better understand how Aravind, now the largest eye care provider in the world, has grown its own capacity to provide eye care services. These meetings helped reinforce for me the importance of:
1. Quality and financial sustainability – By providing high quality services, Aravind attracts patients along a broad economic spectrum. Those who can pay help subsidize those who cannot. The high volume of patients helps keep the costs affordable for all.
2. Innovation – Aravind recognized early on that the high cost of IOLs was a barrier to expanding access to cataract surgeries (cataract is the leading cause of blindness). With the help of Seva Foundation, Aurolab, the manufacturing division of Aravind, was born. Aurolab now produces 8% of the world’s synthetic IOL’s at a fraction of the cost of other manufacturers.
3. Community Outreach – Providing full access to services in countries like India, where the vast majority of the population lives in rural areas, requires overcoming a number of economic, social and geographic barriers. Aravind has conducted extensive research to identify specific barriers to access in its service areas and has developed programs like outreach eye camps, community vision centers, and transportation and logistical support services in order to serve broader populations.
4. Mentoring – Aravind provides training for staff of other eye care hospitals in India and around the world through its own programs and as collaborators in Seva’s Global Sight Initiative (GSI). Collectively, the 10 mentor hospitals currently working with GSI are improving the quality and reach of more than50 mentee hospitals and have helped scale eye care services worldwide.
As an economist, the link between sight restoration and economic opportunity is part of what has always inspired me about Seva’s work. It is intuitive enough – enable a blind person to see and they (along with their caregivers) may then live more productive lives, with easier access to work and education opportunities, such that entire families may be lifted out of poverty. Walking the halls of Aravind’s facilities, one encounters quotes from Dr. V that speak to a deeper inspiration for service one rooted in a sense of universal responsibility and spiritual connection.
“When we grow in spiritual consciousness, we identify with all that is in the world…..It is ourselves we are helping. It is ourselves we are healing.”
- Dr. V
Serving the underserved (seeking equity for economically marginalized groups) is an important guiding principle of Seva’s work, so it was particularly exciting for me to experience how our work in capacity building – investing in training and development for local partner staff – provides economic opportunities for local women. In Aravind’s model, young women are recruited from villages and trained to become ophthalmic nurses, referred to as “Sisters.” The Sisters are a critical component to Aravind’s service delivery model – providing compassionate and quality in-hospital and outpatient care – and at the same time benefit themselves from enhanced economic opportunities.
Strength in Partnership
“…how we can make a Global effort to conquer cataract blindness. Get others involved.”
- Dr. V
Scaling eye care services to eliminate curable blindness across the globe requires development of strong partnerships with local organizations. Aravind is one of Seva's longest partners, and a trip to Tamil Nadu India highlighted for me the mutual trust, respect, and cultural understanding and effectiveness that such a partnership brings.
I had always heard that a trip to India was a feast for the senses – a chance to experience sights, sounds, smells and tastes unlike anywhere else in the world. I certainly found this to be true, but even more importantly – a trip to India and Aravind Eye Hospital is a heart opening experience – the direct result of culture and organization that puts human dignity and compassion at the very center of its mission.