Five per cent or 50 million of India's population is visually handicapped. Of this, 12 million are blind. And this number increases by half a million every year. But the bigger tragedy is that at least 80 per cent of these people can be cured by a simple cataract operation. The problem is that the country reports 2.5 million new cataract cases every year—only two million get operated and the remaining go blind.
In its own way, the icare Charitable Eye Hospital in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, is trying to solve this problem. In the last fiscal, the hospital performed 6,554 cataract surgeries. This year, it's already done close to 4,000, all within a budget for Rs 1 crore. It may not be much with five lakh people going blind every year, but then even aiims performed only 5,500 such surgeries last year, with a budget multiplied many times over.
From small beginnings in Delhi of 100 free cataract surgeries a year in 1984, icare is housed today in a two-storey building in a one-acre campus in Noida with three ambulances. The hospital is run by the Ishwar Charitable Trust which was founded by ophthalmologist Dr Sushil Choudhry in 1983. ''I named the trust after my mother and initially began performing operations from home by using the money I received from her life insurance policy,'' recalls Choudhry. He also dipped into his own savings when the need arose.
It was only in 1993 that icare shifted to its present location. Two unique things about the hospital are that it reaches out to the rural poor and that all surgeries involve the implant of an intra-ocular lens via Phakoemulsification surgery—the most expensive—performed on the patients at an extremely low cost. After this surgery, patients don't need spectacles. The hospital has a rural outreach programme, through which icare is able to hold eye-camps, covering villages in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan. Says Choudhry: ''Our ambulances reach villages up to 200 km away, where we hold eye-camps and then transport people in need of surgery back to the hospital, where they are operated upon and given post-operative care. After about three or four days, they are taken back to their villages.'' Transporting patients to the hospital offers many benefits. The surgery can be performed in ideal conditions in a fully equipped operation theatre. This surgery reduces the need for post-operative care, since only a 3 mm cut needs to be made in the eye. With a 3 mm cut, no stitches are needed and since it heals faster, it requires lesser post-operative care, reducing complications. This surgery would cost around Rs 20,000 in a top-of-the-line hospital in the metros. Choudhry and his dedicated team of seven surgeons do it free for 88 per cent of the patients. Only about 12-15 per cent of the surgeries performed at icare are paid for. It's money from these surgeries, donations from corporates and individuals—and extensive help from organisations like Help the Aged, UK, HelpAge India and Bharat Vikas Parishad—that allow icare to treat about 6,500 patients free of cost. A Phakoemulsification surgery costs icare about
Rs 1,500, whereas it's nearly 10 times that in other hospitals. ''Lower salaries and donated equipment allow us to keep costs low,'' explains Choudhry.
What he'd like to do now is open similar hospitals in small towns to increase the reach and add new floors to the existing hospital for a specialised retina unit, plastic surgery and an eye bank. And another floor to train paramedics and advanced training for opthalmologists, since the government now recognises icare as a teaching institute. For further information, visit icare's website at icareindia.org. And if you'd like to help, contact icare at E-3A Sector-26, Noida, UP-201301. You could also email at firstname.lastname@example.org. n