How one doctor couple in Coimbatore helped give the gift of sight to 1.5 million people

The Sankara Eye Foundation works on a simple principle: let the 20% who can afford it help pay for the 80% who can’t.
How one doctor couple in Coimbatore helped give the gift of sight to 1.5 million people
How one doctor couple in Coimbatore helped give the gift of sight to 1.5 million people
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It was the early 1970s, and the young doctor couple of RV Ramani and Radha Ramani were comfortable in a well-established practice in Coimbatore. But they couldn’t get push away the urge to do something more for society.

Today, the baby steps they took then into uncharted territory have yielded the gift of vision for over 1.5 million people.

Beginning with high quality primary health care for the poor at the two-room Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Medical Centre in RS Puram in May 1977, they went on to set up the Sankara Eye Foundation as part of the Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Medical Trust. Since then, the couple has come a long way and is taking giant strides in making its vision of “achieving perfect vision for all by 2020” a reality. 

RV Ramani chose the speciality of eye-care, he explains, “because no other speciality takes one from total darkness to total light”. Good vision improves quality of life, and its lack leads to vulnerability. It also ensures that people enjoy around 20 additional years of good life. All these reasons led to the decision to set up the Sankara Eye Foundation, he explains.

The most common condition that the Foundation treats is cataracts, which set in as early as 55 years for many patients, due to exposure to heat and polluted working conditions. While 80% of their patients live with cataract, the rest come in with diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, and corneal and refractive errors.

Govindhamal, a 70-year-old woman from Kancheepuram, is among the many who have gained the vision thanks to the Foundation. For years, she had been living as a paying guest with her elder sister and husband, managing to pay Rs 200 for a single room from the earning she got as a domestic help.

Though she was not being treated well by her sister’s family, she endured the humiliation because she had little choice. But even this became difficult as her vision starting deteriorating due to mature cataract. Within just a three-month period, she suddenly found herself with total loss of vision in both eyes, with no job, and facing mortification.

Thankfully, a neighbour put her on to the Sankara Eye Hospital in Coimbatore, and she made it to the hospital accompanied by her brother-in-law. Under the ‘Gift of Vision’ programme, she underwent two surgeries and is now looking forward to returning to work and regaining her independence. 

“The almost 40-year-old community outreach programme, ‘Gift of Vision’, has been instrumental in touching and transforming 1.5 million lives. The weekend village camps screen and identify people who need intervention. The ones with minor problems are treated and prescribed medicines at the camp itself. Those who require surgeries are brought to the base hospital in the hospital bus, along with an attendant if necessary,” explains 46-year-old M Shanthi, Unit Head of the Community Outreach in Coimbatore covering 17 districts, who has been associated with Gift of Vision for 26 years.

“Further screening, lab investigations and fitness evaluation are done by a panel of doctors before the patient is given the go-ahead for the surgery. Once the surgery is conducted, the patient spends the required time as post-op period, before the hospital arranges for him or her to be dropped back,” she adds.

Rajashree Panicker, Country Head of Community Outreach, says that the whole process, including each patient’s stay and food, is provided free of cost by Sankara.

“Another outreach programme, ‘Rainbow’, reaches out to school students. It covers children aged between three and 18 years. Field workers visit Corporation and Government schools every Wednesday for screening. They are provided free spectacles and those who need advanced care are referred to the base hospital,” explains Rajashree, adding that programme also trains teachers from these schools to identify basic eye problems early among the children.

S Praneet, a UKG student in Booluvampatti near Coimbatore, is typical of the children helped by the Rainbow programme. Though Praneet had a squint in his right eye that was clearly visible to his parents, it had not been attended to as everyone saw it as a good omen.

It was only after Sankara’s field workers, identified the condition during their regular check-up, and convinced his parents to get it treated, that Praneet finally received medical attention. His mother S Gomathi, happy with the outcome, is now ready to get Praneet treated for the left eye, which is also developing a squint.

The Sankara Eye Hospital is able to touch so many thousands of people through a simple 80:20 model. Here, the 20% of people who can afford it pay for treatments, and their money is used to subsidise treatments for the other 80%. The journey has been long and hard, but the Foundation has succeeded thanks to the dedication of its staff, and the support of generous well-wishers.

It all began when the Ramanis’ neighbour N Nataraj offered them 5.2 acres of land in Sivanandapuram in the early 1980s to build the hospital. Even as RV and Radha stood on the vast expanse of land and wondered how anything was going to come up on it, a friend helped dig a borewell, another donated 100 coconut saplings. Yet another donated avenue trees that majestically line the campus roads today, while a fourth gave medicinal plants.

Even before the first brick was laid, the site was geared up to be a green campus. The first building on 1,000 sq ft came up with help from another friend – SV Balasubramaniam, Chairman of the Bannari Amman Group, who is now the Chairman of the Board of Sankara Eye Foundation. 

With its growing success over the years, the Coimbatore model has also been replicated in Krishnankoil in Tamil Nadu and in nine other states in the country. And since 1998, the Sankara Eye Foundation, USA (SEF USA), has helped raise funds to support the Foundations work in India.  Thanks to SEF USA, the number of surgeries performed by SEF India has exponentially risen from 8,000 each year in 1998 to 1,40,000 per year in 2016. 

Visit if you wish to pledge your eyes, volunteer or donate to the Foundation.

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