“With your permission, may I call in some of my colleagues,” the tall, well-built and greying gentleman asked us. After getting a surprised nod, the 67-year-old doctor called out a couple of names, ever so courteously, to an assistant. As we waited for his colleagues to join, he turned towards us and said, “It has always been team work at Sankara Nethralaya.”
Dr SS Badrinath, founder and chairman emeritus of the premier eye hospital and ET’s Corporate Citizen of the Year, is famously modest. He tends to downplay his own contribution to the institution that eminent jurist Nani A Palkhivala once described as “the best-managed charitable organisation in India.” (Later, Mr Palkhivala bequeathed his property to the institution.)
But, talk to his colleagues in his absence and they will speak volumes about what Dr Badrinath has done to the organisation. Dr Lingam Gopal, who has been with Sankara Nethralaya (SN) since its fourth year, and is its present chairman, says, “This organisation started with just three consultants, and now we have over 80, all working for a salary (that keeps costs low). It’s difficult to keep such a team together. His leadership and vision has made all the difference.”
But Dr Badrinath himself would rather talk about Sankara Nethralaya and about the work it does in clinical care, research and teaching. As we sat in the conference hall, on the seventh floor of one of its buildings at Chennai campus, Dr Badrinath explained why eye care is so important for the country. In the corridors and wards below, doctors, optometrists, paramedics and nurses scurried around to take care of a seemingly endless stream of patients.
India is still a poor country and a third of all blind people in the world are Indians, he said. The country also has the largest number of diabetics, which makes eye care even more difficult. So, India needs the best of talent and equipment. At the same time, in some cases, solution could just be a pair of spectacles. Around 6-7% of blind people in India are that way because they do not use corrective glasses.
The inspiration to start a hospital came from Kanchi Sankaracharya Sri Jayendra Saraswathi. “He gave a clarion call for doctors to come together and start a hospital at a meeting in 1976,” says Dr Badrinath. That explains why a photograph of Sri Chandrasekhara Saraswathi, the previous pontiff of the mutt, dominates the doctor’s room.
But then, he found it difficult to mobilise doctors to start a general hospital and decided to start an eye hospital instead. “We did not have money. We started the hospital without money,” he recalls. He took the plunge in 1978 and SN was set up as a unit of the Medical Research Foundation, a registered, not-for-profit charitable organisation.
Today, SN is a self-sustaining institution, and does not depend on donations. Revenues from paying patients take care of all its working capital needs while all surplus is ploughed back. But, it still depends on donation for capital investments — especially equipment which is costly and has to be imported.
It employs over 1,200 people and has spread to Assam, Bangalore, Jalna and Kolkata through its affiliates. Around 1,500 patients walk in everyday. Doctors perform over 125 surgeries a day. About 50% of the consultations and 40% of the surgeries are done free of cost. The organisation itself was founded to provide affordable eye care to people.
For a man with credentials as impressive as Dr Badrinath’s, surely a loan would not have been a problem. Here’s some insight from his wife, Dr Vasanthi Iyengar, “He reasoned, if you take a loan, the focus would turn to money, as you would be under the pressure to repay it.”
The first donation came from another Sankaracharya of Sringeri. Soon support from corporates and donors followed and continues to flow. In fact, among the first to call up Dr Badrinath after the ET Awards were announced were Rahul Bajaj, AM Naik and Brij Mohan Munjal.
“We are happy to get the recognition from ET. Such recognitions and accolades go a long way in inspiring our employees. We understood the significance of the award when congratulatory calls and messages started pouring in from Friday.”
Dr Badrinath graduated from Madras Medical College in 1963.
His subsequent years were spent in the US honing his skills. He had stints with Glasslands Hospital, New York, New York University Post Graduate Medical School, Brooklyn Eye and Ear Infirmary, and Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Boston. He became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Canada in 1969 and Diplomate of the American Board of Ophthalmology in 1970.
Again, it was in the US that he met Dr Vasanthi Iyengar, a paediatrician and haematologist. They met at Brooklyn New York in 1966 and got married a year later. Their elder son, Seshu, is a photo editor at ESPN in the US, with younger son Ananth a molecular biologist.
The Badrinaths returned to India in 1970 with probable plans of returning to the US. “We found it difficult to settle in Chennai in the initial years in early 70s,” says Dr Vasanthi. “In 1973, at the first year celebrations of HM Hospital, where Badri was practising, MS Amma (renowned musician MS Subbalakshmi) walked up to me with a request. Badri must practice here, she said,” adds Dr Vasanthi.
May 15, 1973 turned out to be the important day when the Badrinaths decided that their return to India was irreversible. “We were preparing to leave for the US. We already had our visas. Badri also had a job in the US. At 4 am that morning he said we are not going back,” recalls Dr Vasanthi.
Today, SN’s works on solutions through focus on and striking a balance between clinical care, training and research. In clinical care, it has done some pioneering work: it was the first to introduce PRK (photo refractive keratectomy) and later Lasik, which uses laser to improve vision; the first to perform a long and complex surgery OOKP (Osteo Odonto Kerato Prosthesis) where it uses a patient’s tooth to restore vision.
Its teleophthalmology (which uses telecom), mobile teleophthalmology (which uses a mobile hospital) projects literally takes eye care to the door steps of the poor. It is also serious about training. The institution not only trains doctors and ophthalmologists for PhDs and fellowships, but also offers courses in optometry, medical lab technology and ophthalmic assistance.
“India is a huge country. We need a lot of people. In many cases, you don’t need to be trained as a doctor to treat patients,” Dr Badrinath said. Another key area that SN focuses on is research. It’s one area where hospitals in general do not focus.
In many cases, India’s problems are unique, and demands solutions designed for the country. The institution has published over 400 scientific papers in peer reviewed journal. Almost one-third of papers that go from India in this field are from Sankara Nethralaya.
Its research also has a direct impact on its operations. The latest is a vision chip a team of its scientists, led by Prof HN Madhavan, designed to detect micro-organisms, virus, bacteria, fungus or parasite that cause infection in the eyes — very fast. “Our problems must be looked at and solved by us, not by some American company,” Dr Badrinath said.
Originaly from the Economic Times
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