REAL HEROS - Charitable Eye Surgury in India

REAL HEROES, PART I by Bill Bonner

"If everyone swept his own doorsteps, what a clean world it would be."


There are so many obvious defects with the human character that even a
hairdresser would be bored if we began reciting them.

But here we focus only on the two of them we find amusing today: He
can't seem to help himself from wanting to use his brain to improve the
world, but when he puts himself to work on it, his brain ceases to

The defect begins to appear, acutely, when the typical Homo sapien
reaches his teenage years. That is when his brain is sharp and active,
but before it has been put in its place by experience. It still thinks
it can solve any problem as though it were long division.

In a memoir from his youth, for example, a childhood friend of Adolph
Hitler reported that the future Fuhrer would walk through the
neighborhood and point out how he would improve things - change the
color of one house...knock the columns off another...raise the roof on a
third. But, rather than buy a house and try to realize his architectural
ambitions, the young Hitler tried to change the face of the entire

And here, we bring in another defect - not of leaders, but of the common
man. He is ready to go along with anything. In a few years, Germans were
goose-stepping all over Europe, creating havoc and chaos...trying to
impose Hitler's clumsy new order.

Yes, dear reader. There are people who do not try to improve the world,
which is not only hopeless, but also vain and disastrous. Instead, real
heroes do what they can to improve the world around them. Here, we honor
more of them.

In the United States, it costs about $1,650 to perform a cataract
operation. You wouldn't expect many such operations in a country such as
India, where per capita income is probably less than $1000. But in India
today, there are five hospitals that perform more than 180,000 eye
operations each year. Each operation costs only about $110. Most of the
patients pay nothing.

This is thanks to Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, who set up his first
12-bed Aravind eye hospital in his brother's home in Madurai, in 1976.
At the time, he was already 57 years old.

Dr. V set out to be an obstetrician. But he was crippled by rheumatoid
arthritis at an early age. He spent two years recovering. Because he
could no longer deliver babies, he turned to the study of ophthalmology,
and designed special tools that suited his hands. He found that he could
do eye operations simpler, faster and much cheaper than they had been
done before.

The inspiration, he says, comes from McDonald's. He first discovered the
golden arches at the age of 55 and it changed his life.

"In America, there are powerful marketing devices to sell products like
Coca-Cola and hamburgers," he says. "All I want to sell is good
eyesight, and there are millions of people who need it...If Coca-Cola
can sell billions of sodas and McDonald's can sell billions of burgers,
why can't Aravind sell millions of sight-restoring operations...? With
sight, people could be freed from hunger, fear, and poverty.

"In the third world, a blind person is referred to as 'a mouth without
hands,'" says Dr. V. "He is detrimental to his family and to the whole
village. But all he needs is a 10-minute operation. One week the
bandages go on, the next week they go off. High bang for the buck. But
people don't realize that the surgery is available, or that they can
afford it, because it's free. We have to sell them first on the need."

The hospital picks up the tab for those who can't pay. Paying customers
are charged 50 rupees (about $1) per consultation and have their choice

accommodations: "A-class" rooms ($3 per day), which are private;

rooms ($1.50 per day), in which a toilet is shared; or "C-class" rooms
($1 per day), essentially a mat on the floor. Paying customers choose
between surgery with stitches ($110) and surgery without stitches

Since he began, his eye hospitals have restored the sight of more than
one million people in India. Even with such tiny revenues per patient,
Aravind makes a profit, with a gross margin of 40%. One operation is
completed; another is begun right away. It is apparently a very
efficient and productive enterprise.

Aravind now does more eye surgeries than any other provider in the
world, though it accepts no government grants. The hospitals are totally
self-supporting. Nor does Dr. V. try to hustle a profit from the
enterprise for himself. He lives on a pension, taking no money out of

Dr. V. is helping the poor in a big way. But he also helps them in a way
very different from the typical world improver. He sees them as

"Consultants talk of 'the poor,'" he says. "No one at Aravind does. 'The
poor' is a vulgar term. Would you call Christ a poor man? To think of
certain people as 'the poor' puts you in a superior position, blinds you
to the ways in which you are poor - and in the West there are many such
ways: emotionally and spiritually, for example. You have comforts in
America, but you are afraid of each other."

Dr. V set out only to do eye operations...quickly and cheaply. The world
improvement came - as it always does - as a by-product of private
action. In Tamil Nadu state, where his main hospital is located, the
incidence of blindness is 20% below the rest of India.