For every one person treated, another 4 are treated for free – helping Sankara perform 1 million free vision restoration surgeries for weaker sections

It’s not till I visited the Sankara Eyecare Institutions in Bangalore did I learn that India has more blind people than any other country in the world. Of course, a simple Google search would have told me that. But how often do sighted people like you and me really look up those kinds of statistics?

What I was conscious of was the fact that blindness, like many other disabilities, can be a big hurdle. Think about it. It robs a person of his/her ability to lead a normal life. For those from the lower socio-economic strata, it would mean a loss of livelihood for an entire household (thereby leading to the deepening of their poverty) as well as adverse effects on their emotional and mental wellbeing.

It was this similar realization that lead to the birth of the Sankara Eye Care Institutions in 1977. The organisation comprises of 11 hospitals across the country; all of which cater to its main mission, which is to eliminate curable blindness in the country. So what constitutes “curable” blindness? This was my first and natural response on learning about their mission.

Curable blindness is any form of blindness which can be prevented and/or cured but sadly remains untreated. This is the case for approximately 45 million people (mostly in the developing world) due to a lack of financial resources and/or a lack of awareness of treatment options. That’s truly an unfortunate state of affairs!

And this would have been the case for people like Seenu. Seenu comes from a small village in Tamil Nadu. When his father lost his job at a cotton mill when it closed down, Seenu began washing dirty plates at a nearby restaurant, after school hours. One day, an ugly spat between him and the restaurant owner gave Seenu a head injury. The day after the fight, Seenu realized that he had lost vision in his left eye. It was only a few years later that they learnt about Sankara Eye Care’s camps; through one of these camps Seenu’s left-eye vision was ultimately restored.

Or baby Sangeetha from Davagere district of Karnataka. Since her birth, Sangeetha had beautiful wide eyes which would charm any onlooker who sees her. Her parents thought that the pearly spot in both her eyes was a sign of beautiful eyes! As Sangeetha grew up the spot also grew in size and in due course of time it almost filled her eyes. Gradually she also had difficulty in identifying objects and people around her; and she used to stumble often while playing. Her parents took her to the nearest Primary Health Center (PHC) where the doctor referred her to the private hospital for further treatment. Their poor economic condition however prevented them from doing so. Both parents wept inconsolably at the inevitable blindness of their only daughter.

It so happened that Sangeetha’s grandfather had his surgery done at Sankara Eye Hospital, Shimoga and advised his son and daughter in law to attend the local screening camp at Arsikere. She was duly taken to the free screening camp where she was detected with congenital cataract in both eyes and referred to the base hospital for surgery; where she successfully operated on by the senior Paediatric Ophthalmologist and discharged after 3 days with full and clear vision!

Both Seenu and Sangeetha were fortunate enough to learn about and attend a Sanakara Eye Care screening camp. Sankara regularly conducts screening camps, covering a radius of 100 kms around their 11 hospitals. A temporary clinic is put up at a prominent place, like a local school or community hall or a primary health centre. Effort is put in by their team to locate a place that has good accessibility from several nearby villages.

In fact, preparations for a camp start 2 days in advance. The team goes to each village to remind folks about the camp – where it’s happening, how to get there etc. – to ensure good attendance. They also mentally prepare them to go to the city (i.e. in case it turns out that they need to) – how they will be taken, who can accompany them, facilities at the hospital etc. They get right down to the basics – like telling them to have a bath and put on a clean pair of clothes on the day of the camp; also to pack a pair of clothes too for the city hospital.

On the day of the screening, a team from the base hospital, consisting of an Ophthalmologist, paramedic staffs and an outreach team, travels to the temporary clinic early morning. All camps start early and go on till lunch time (as it may take the villagers time to arrive from/go back home, plus the ladies need to return to prepare dinner etc.) Minor problems involving distribution of spectacles and eye drops are managed at the temporary clinic itself. Patients who require minor or major surgical intervention are taken to the base hospital.

What’s important to note is that post-operative care through follow up is also done. All patients are meticulously and systematically followed up on after 30 days. This is done to avoid infections and other kinds of complications that may arise. At this stage, feedback is sought by the team actively, from patients’ on their overall experience. After all, customer feedback is what has helped them fine tune this process over the years, to make it so effective!

Each temporary eye clinic receives 300 to 1,000 patients who come in for screening; 100-300 of these are referred for surgery. Both Seenu and Sangeetha were brought to a base hospital, after a screening at one of the camps. Over the years, these camps have helped thousands of people like Seenu and Sangeetha see better. To give you a better sense – 8,07,004 surgeries have been performed on patients identified at 12,469 screening camps; thereby touching the lives of 22,59,316 people directly through foot falls in the primary eye clinics till date! All no charge!

Of course you’re wondering how the hospital sustains itself? This has been made possible through a combination of government grants (approximately Rs. 650 per surgery under The National Programme For Control of Blindness, which was included in the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi’s 20- point socio economic programme, in 1982), donations, and income from patients who can afford to pay for surgeries. It all works out to be approximately “80/20” model, where four free eye surgeries are performed for each paid surgery!

With 1/4 th of the world’s blind living in India, and 4 million new cases of curable blindness being added to the existing backlog, annually, Sankara Eye Care Intitution’s services and model-of-operation are truly invaluable.

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