Ophthalmologists V. Narendran and Kalpana Narendran of Aravind Eye Hospital speak to Subha J Rao about their mission of restoring vision

Every Thursday, a team from Aravind Eye Hospital (AEH), Coimbatore, visits neonatal units in the city to check newborns for Retinopathy of Prematurity (RoP), an eye disease that can cause blindness if left untreated. In the weekends, about 12 teams from the same hospital fan out to remote villages in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka to conduct eye camps. There, they meet people who live in fear, worrying about their failing vision and too afraid to travel to a distant city to meet doctors.

It is such people who are brought under the fold of the outreach programmes that help examine approximately 135,000 people a year. Of these, 25,000 have cataract surgeries.

They are brought to the city along with local helpers. This makes the process of regaining vision less stressful for them, say ophthalmologists V. Narendran and Kalpana Narendran.

Dr. Narendran is the chief medical officer of AEH, Coimbatore, which started operations in 1997. His wife, Dr. Kalpana heads the Introcular Lens and Cataract Clinic, and Paediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus (squint) Clinic.

sThe outreach programmes are not always smooth sailing. “Once, we trekked six km to reach a tribal hamlet in the Thirumoorthy Hills, where we met with some resistance. All the men had vacated the village. We screened some people, and eight of them had to undergo surgery. But they refused to come. On our way back, we saw the men huddled with the local soothsayer. Once we convinced him, things proceeded smoothly,” says Dr. Narendran.

The couple began their careers at the Aravind Eye Care system. Dr. Kalpana is the niece of its founder, the legendary Dr. V (Govindappa Venkataswamy). “Even as kids, Dr. V wanted us to be good in everything,” she recalls. Dr. Narendran, who joined Aravind in 1992, took up ophthalmology after marriage. He still remembers how Dr. V would turn up at 6.45 a.m. for a 7 a.m. surgery. And, how the stickler for cleanliness led by example, thinking nothing of picking up litter from the floor.

Core values

Despite being in a competitive industry, the Narendrans have not wavered from their mission. “It is probably because we started our careers here that our values were never diluted,” says Dr. Kalpana, 46, who joined the hospital in 1993. Dr. Narendran, 49, says: “There’s the satisfaction that comes from being part of a system where you never have to turn anyone away because they don’t have money.”

Even in its early days, the hospital handled about 500 outpatients a day. Now, it sees about 400 free patients and 1,200 paying outpatients every single day. The paying patients cross-subsidise the free patients. Every year, on an average, it does about 86,000 surgeries, of which 55,000 are for cataract removal. Its reach spreads from Kasargod to Kochi in Kerala, from Coimbatore and Tirupur to the Nilgiris and Erode in Tamil Nadu and Chamrajnagar and Haasan to Mysore in Karnataka.

The hospital is mostly self-sufficient, but the ophthalmologists say they could do with more volunteers. “Someone to hold an old lady’s hand, someone who can read to a scared child, someone who can motivate mid-level workers with a pep talk…” says Dr. Narendran.

Well trained

Dr. Narendran and Dr. Kalpana head to work at 7.30 a.m. and leave at 6.30 p.m. In the intervening period, there are patients to be counselled and looked after, administrative issues to be dealt with and, most importantly, vision to be restored. “Our job is actually quite simple because of our training. We were taught technology, administration, surgery, humility and bedside manners… and Dr. V led by example,” says Dr. Kalpana. “When there is a template, it is easy to follow it,” adds Narendran.

One of Dr. Narendran’s pet projects is RoP. “Since 2003, this has been one of our flagship programmes. We test the children free of charge and do a follow-up screening once a year.”

Dr. Kalpana recalls the case of a 15-day-old, high-risk infant with cataract and a cardiac condition. “The family had come from Salem. Today, that child is in the U.S. So many parents bring back their kids, who we have treated, to see us. It is gratifying.”

The couple says that however hectic the schedules, they step into surgery with hope. “There are few life-threatening cases. Not too many emergencies, barring the rare midnight crisis. We lead mostly positive lives,” says Dr. Kalpana. Narendran and Kalpana have two sons Siddharth, 23, who is pursuing medicine, and Rahul, 18, studying to be an engineer.

Working on the elderly has its moments. When they regain vision after many years of blindness or near blindness, they are moved to tears. “A serious-looking lady hugged me after surgery and told me I was liker her granddaughter,” says Kalpana. Her special memory is of operating on her teacher and aunt, the formidable yet affable Dr. Natchiar. “I was in a flap. It is not every day that you operate on a role model and mentor.”

Not just people, Kalpana has even operated on a colleague’s dog! “We took it to the wet lab, where doctors practise surgery, and removed the cataract,” says Kalpana. “Our biggest patient might have been a blind elephant. But, the complications were many and the idea was dropped,” she adds.

In their free time, Dr. Narendran, who is passionate about farming (his retirement idea!), watches sports. Dr. Kalpana’s idea of a perfect Sunday is cleaning the bathrooms at home. “Narendran jokes that after the hospital, my next favourite place is the detergents section in the supermarket!”