Doing the best you know, the best you can
A center of excellence is the best thing that can be created in this world. The reason is that it involves several decades of dedicated work, generations of people, and a great purpose that is relentlessly pursued without wavering. And above all, it changes destinies of countless people across generations. Unfortunately, India lacks such centers. There is no Indian university in the top 100 universities of the world and most of our national laboratories are not counted in the global comity of science.
I have been connected with the LV Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad, more as an admirer and know Dr G. Nageswara Rao, its founder, and Dr Tara Prasad Das, the second-in-command, as friends. In 1996, when Dr APJ Abdul Kalam started having difficulty in reading, I took him to the Institute. Dr Das checked his eyes, assisted by optometrist Ghanshyam, and he was prescribed glasses. He never had any problem with his eyes thereafter, but that visit created a lifetime bond between him and the Institute.
When Dr Kalam became the President of India, Dr Das sought Dr Kalam’s help to start an eye hospital in Bhubaneshwar, to where he belonged. A word from Dr Kalam to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaikji made things move fast. I accompanied him on the inauguration day on July 3, 2006. At the time, Dr Kalam said, “This hospital has the great challenge of providing eye care support to Orissa (now Odisha) state where nearly 2 percent of their population is visually challenged as against the national average of 1.4 percent.” Sacrificing his retina research work wherein he is world-renowned, Dr Das stayed there for six years to ensure that systems and people were in place. And today, LVPEI, Bhubaneshwar is a center of excellence in its own right.
Months before he departed, in February 2015, Dr Kalam visited Rajgangpur in Odisha’s Sundargarh district to inaugurate a unit of the LVPEI there. True to its name, this beautiful district has half its area under forest cover and numerous colorful tribes dotting its landscape. But for someone who lacks the gift of vision, of what use is all this? The hospital soon became a hub for needy patients in Raigarh and Jashpur districts of Chhattisgarh, Simdega and West Singhbhum districts of Jharkhand, and the Keonjhar district of Odisha. There was no good eye hospital even in cities like Jharsuguda, Sambalpur, Deogarh and Angul in this region.
While returning to Delhi, at Bhubaneshwar airport, Dr Kalam hugged Dr Das and said, “I am proud of you.” Who knew it was the last time they would meet! Today, similar to Rajgangpur – LVPEI has established hospitals at Rayagada, Berhampur and Keonjhar; the fifth one in Odisha is being built at Balasore, not very far from the Wheeler Island, now called APJ Abdul Kalam Island.
I had my cataract surgery done at the LV Prasad Eye Institute, Hyderabad, on May 13, 2015, in the left eye and recently, on March 3, 2021, in the right eye. Dr Das received me at the hospital as a brother would. Both procedures were conducted by Dr Pravin V. Krishna, Chief of Cornea Division at the Institute. Dr Pravin’s father is a Radar scientist who worked for the Electronics Research & Development Establishment (LRDE), Bengaluru. In Defence parlance, ‘E’ is used for explosive and the second letter ‘L’ is used as abbreviation for electronics. Dr Pravin did his medical graduation at Bangalore Medical College and ophthalmology at Guntur Medical College. Living in Hyderabad for the last 19 years, he sees LVPEI as his sanctuary.
Keep doing your work like a precision machine, in a sterile environment, serving people whom you don’t even know, is how I understand “Tapas,” as mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, and what we can call “ardor,” in the modern world. People like Dr Nageswara Rao, Dr Tara Prasad Das, and Dr Pravin Krishna are indeed blessed souls who have been sent in this world to relieve pain. Ordinary people and those in the medical profession who opted for making money and collecting toys like big cars, diamond studded watches and gold tipped pens, would never taste the bliss these people feel.
How is a center of excellence created? And more importantly, how does it sustain itself?
For the sincere seekers of answers to these two questions, LVPEI is indeed gold-standard. First comes the land. It must be owned by the hospital. The Hyderabad campus of LVPEI is built over the land donated by LV Prasad Film Studio after their Telugu film Maro Charitra (1978) and its Hindi version Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981) proved blockbusters. Except giving his name to the institute, LV Prasad forbade his successors from interfering in it in any manner. Dr Nageswara Rao approached his non-resident Indian friends for donations in order to create the institution, like Buddha did to create the Sangha. Almost every room bears the name of the donor who helped create it. Later, Dr K. Anji Reddy, founder of Dr Reddy’s Laboratories donated a part of his fortune made in pharmaceutical industry to modernize the building.
Next come the human resources. You need people for whom serving a patient is a “calling” and not a job. And they must be continuously trained by the best in the world and on the best of the machines. When Dr Rao was elected Chair of the Board and CEO of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB), he refused to relocate to London and in an unprecedented gesture, IAPB shifted its headquarters to Hyderabad for his entire term in office. Everyone arrives at the Institute at 7 a.m. and attends one hour of learning before reaching their workstations at 8 a.m. Every month, employees are acknowledged for their good work through a peer review system.
Good medicine rests on Research. What a patient needs must be sensed right by the doctor and delivered right by adapting global technology to the local conditions. Renowned scientist, Dr D. Balasubramanian, chose to work at LVPEI after his retirement from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology as Director. He told me that it was here that he carried out the best of his work on stem cell biology and its use in restoring lost vision. Seeing him working in his eighties is like meeting a Rishi.
Finally and of utmost importance is the working capital that is needed to provide world-class treatment and services on a day-to-day basis. The general solution is high tariffs that have given our best hospitals the tag of “five stars.” LVPEI has solved this problem by starting a “Sight Saver” system. Here, people voluntarily pay high tariffs, just as we buy a business class ticket while travelling by air. A part of this tariff is used to subsidize the treatment of poor people, who pay low tariffs and even nothing, in many cases. Like in the aircraft that ensures safe travel for everyone, there is no difference in the quality of the treatment. However, “sight savers” are given other facilities, like the use of a good lounge or parking area near the entrance and other making-you-feel-special mannerisms.
Why are there not many other hospitals like LVPEI? May be goodness has to always be in limited supply! Not many doctors make it their life’s mission to create institutions that outlive their lives, keeping their families away from ownership, and living and dying while doing their work and serving others. I know many people who are in the Institute since its inception. It is not that they get the highest salaries here, but they feel rich on being a part of this Institute and put this bliss at a premium.
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