Right from when Dr Sundar Ram Shetty graduated from the Hubli medical college, specialising in ophthalmology, several years ago, he treasured an inner vision — to provide quality eye care for the poor. After working in different parts of India, a brief stint in Nigeria and higher studies in Dublin, he returned to his roots, rich with experience and the same burning vision. In 1987, he set up his clinic at Indira Nagar in Bengaluru, all set to convert his vision into action. He found his calling in the villages of Karnataka where eye care facilities were abysmal and the prevalence of cataract widespread.
Studies reveal that a whopping 15 million Indian people are sightless; and 80 percent of this blindness is easily preventable if detected and treated in time. A majority of the people suffer from cataract, which can be reversible through a simple surgery! Most of the specialised eye hospitals are city-based, and the rural population is ignored, unscreened and untreated, with no access to quality eye care.
The scenario is Karnataka was equally grim. The Global Eye Foundation is Dr Sundar Ram Shetty’s ‘dream come true’ to provide medical care for avoidable blindness, especially for cataract. The Foundation’s outreach programmes extend across four districts of Karnataka has treated 2.5 lakh patients and performed 65,000 surgeries.
During the 90s when he started practice, IOL surgeries were not common and cataract surgeries used to be a long painful process; surgeries were done with ICC (intra-capsular cataract) where the entire cornea is operated, lens removed and incision closed. With both eyes bandaged, the patient was immobilised for a couple of days. The national plan, GIA — Government in Aid — also did not allow IOL surgeries. (But today GIA funds for the IOL).
Dr Shetty personally funded the IOL and treated needy patients free of charge. Later, at the request of Lions Club members, he offered his services at Hoskote, an industrial township 28 km from Bengaluru, where only an elementary base hospital existed. He’d drive to Hoskote daily in his Maruti 800, screen patients for cataract in remote areas, pack as many patients as his car could hold back to the hospital, perform surgeries — upto 25 a day — and drop them back to their home the same day. Within a year (1991-92) he was able to provide eye care for nearly 20,000 children, adults and old people. Expenses were met from his pocket, apart from generous contributions from friends and relatives.
His membership in the local recreation club helped him connect with philanthropists. Along with nine of these friends, he started a trust with a corpus of Rs 5,000. Thus was born ‘Global Eye Foundation’ (GEF) at his clinic in 1995.The next year, GEF opened its first hospital at Hoskote in a rented building. Soon he got a call from late Rtn K P Bhaskar of RC Bangalore Indira Nagar and the club donated some spectacles, as it was involved in eye care projects. Dr Shetty persuaded the club to sponsor IOLs. By 1997, he became a member of the club.
His present state-of the-art GEF Hospital was started with a Rs 40 lakh bank loan in 2005, and has now grown into a 65-bed facility at Hoskote, helped along the way with Rotary support including Matching Grants. Dr B R Pai (former Director, National Aerospace Laboratories) is the vice chair in this non-profit venture, where 600 operations are performed annually.
The hospital gives free treatment to a large number of poor patients in such a way “that the poor do not feel small or uncomfortable, or feel they are getting charity,” says Dr Shetty. Against 50 paying patients, 500 are treated free of cost, and the patients are given the option to pay or not. “No patient is turned down for want of funds here,” he says.
Serving as a central base, the GEF Hospital staff screens through eye camps, patients across four districts — Chikkaballapura, Kolar, Bengaluru Rural and Urban — for cataract, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy and refractive errors. Follow-up action, including free surgeries, is done at the hospital, with the patients being provided even transport, food and accommodation.
Dr Shetty’s patients now get cataract surgery done with manual SICS (Small Incision Cataract Surgery), which is suture-less precision surgery where an IOL is placed manually inside the eye.
His passion is evident in his speech and his dream is to propagate this procedure to “as many ophthalmologists as possible, for it is the perfect answer to India’s burgeoning cataract population,” he believes. And he is on the job — providing extensive training to ophthalmologists, from within and outside India.
GEF as Training Centre
The same complex also has a training centre funded by C.P. Bothra, Founder & Trustee of Chandanmal Pukhraj Bothra Trust, (hence called GEF Hospital & Bothra Institute of Community Ophthalmology) to prepare doctors to tackle preventable blindness in villages and small towns. But charity is the underlying factor; Dr Shetty has made it mandatory that those trained here will give part of their expertise free of cost.
Dr Shetty’s long-term mission is to make Karnataka cataract-backlog free, and he puts in relentless work to achieve this goal. “Inadequate eye care facilities, ophthalmologists and paramedics are the root causes for the huge backlog of cataracts, with more people being added to the list every year,” he laments. So GEF has developed a three-tier system — primary vision centres, a tertiary centre and a referral hospital.
But how long can he provide free services; is such a venture sustainable?
Dr Shetty’s response: “Once the eyesight of the blind is restored, they become a productive workforce; their affordability increases and schemes such as Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana would make it affordable for people to avail medical care.” He estimates that by 2030, at least 20 percent of people with preventable blindness would become financially stronger, if his dream shapes up.
He has also set up a 20-bed hospital at Shiroor, a village in the foothills of the Western Ghats, through the Parvathy Mahabala Shetty Charitable Trust in memory of his parents. While the OPD is handled by optometrists and paramedics from the locality (including youth from the Kudubi tribe), Dr Shetty visits the village once a month to perform the surgeries. This hospital serves as a secondary-care level facility, catering to the 35,000 population. He is confident that Rotary and other donors will come forward to expand it. Yet another hospital is under construction at Chinthamani, a village in Chikkaballapura district.
Rotarians reach out
RC Bangalore Indira Nagar has been a huge supporter of this giant undertaking right from the start. Equipment and several eye surgeries are being funded by the Rotarians every year. Rotary clubs of Koramangala, IT Corridor, Jeevanbhima Nagar, and other organisations such as Ramakrishna Mission, Helpage India are the other supporters.
After doing so much, Dr Shetty feels that this is just the tip of the iceberg. “Rotary should go on a war-footing like its polio eradication campaign to eliminate avoidable blindness. Club presidents should adopt preventable blindness as a flagship project,” he says.
Dr Shetty is a Paul Harris Fellow, a Major Donor, and the District Advisor of District 3190’s Avoidable Blindness Committee. His target is doing 10,000 cataract surgeries a year, and the parting shot is, “it can be anywhere in the world.”