The visionary

Eye care is synonymous with Sankara Nethralaya. But had S S Badrinath taken that flight to America in 1972, it would have been a blind alley for thousands.


DR S S BADRINATH | CHENNAI “It’s all team work. This place will continue to grow long after I am gone”

Thank god for the change in travel plans that Dr S S Badrinath made on a May morning in 1972. It was on that day the visionary ophthalmologist, pursuing a private practice in the US at the time, decided to stay back. He went on to establish Sankara Nethralaya (SN) in Chennai in 1978 with the express mission of serving the poor and needy. In a country that is home to one-third of the world’s blind, the netralaya was manna from heaven.

Forty per cent of the surgeries — including 10,000 cataract operations in a year — are conducted free-of-cost at SN. The centre has a unique operational model which allows it to cross-subsidise expenses for the poor. All doctors here,
including the founder, are paid salaries, not consultation fees.

“That,” says Badrinath, “has helped us sustain ourselves while carrying out surgeries free of cost.” As for acquiring state-of-the-art equipment, there are always generous donors. In fact, Badrinath started SN with funds from donors and refused to take any loan because he didn’t want the pressure to make money to get to him.

The centre is also the fountainhead of ophthalmology research in India. Currently, the largest number of scientific papers on ophthalmology in the country comes out of Sankara Nethralaya. A pioneer in more ways than one, the hospital was the first to introduce photorefractive keratectomy and laser technology to correct refractive errors. It has performed stem cell therapy using a patient’s tooth — a procedure called osteo-odonto-keratoprosthesis. It also runs an optometry school and a research centre for stem cell and genetic therapy to find ways to cure several types of blindness.

The centre has come a long way from its modest beginning. Opened as a clinic with just three consultants, today it has more than 80 consultants who perform at least 100 surgeries in a day. Sitting in a room on the second floor of an imposing building, the 71-year-old, tall, well-built doctor is modest about his achievements. “It’s all team work,” he says simply.

At least 1,200 people walk in here every day from all corners of the country, and the corridors bustle with doctors, optometrists, paramedics and nurses attending to an endless stream of patients. Badrinath, who is the hospital’s employee no 2 — the first is his driver Arumugam, who has retired — says its biggest strength is a mix of different people but with the same dedication and goals. “This place will continue to grow long after I am gone,” he smiles.

Source: The TOI Crest, January 02, 2010

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