While the work of someone like the late Fred Hollows inspires unqualified admiration, it can also be intimidating. Not all of us have the drive and commitment required to tackle eye health problems on such a global scale.
How can the rest of us make a difference when the need is so great? Ophthalmologist Dr. David Moore found out that, sometimes, it is simply a matter of making a friend.
The lives of Australian ophthalmologist David Moore and Indian eye surgeon Kumar Rao, who practises in a village in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, couldn’t be more different.
Dr. Moore lives and works in the New South Wales regional city of Tamworth, where he has a thriving practice and operates out of a private hospital.
Dr. Kumar is unique. He is prepared to live on a pittance to ensure that the people in his village have access to medical and eye care…
Kumar Rao has a general medical and eye clinic that reaches some of the poorest of India’s poor, including many from the ‘Dalit’, an untouchable caste, in the village of Payakaraopeta, in Andhara Pradesh on India’s east coast.
But when the pair met by chance at an orphanage in rural India six years ago, it was the beginning of a partnership that has changed both their lives and that of the people around them.
David Moore and his wife have been sponsoring children from an orphanage in rural India for years so when the opportunity arose in 2005 for them to visit, they jumped at the chance.
At the orphanage, Dr. Moore met Kumar Rao – known to all as ‘Dr. Kumar’ – who was conducting a medical and eye clinic.
Dr. Moore said the two men bonded over their interest in their mutual profession, and the contact between them continued via email when Dr. Moore returned to Australia.
Dr. Moore said it was obvious that Dr. Kumar was a man with a calling on his life.
“Most doctors in India, understandably, want to get ahead and become wealthy, and so they practise in wealthier parts of India, with wealthier patients.
“Dr. Kumar is unique. He is prepared to live on a pittance to ensure that the people in his village have access to medical and eye care.”
The village of Payakaraopeta, where Dr. Kumar is based, is home to about 50,000 people. It is rural, predominantly Hindu, area with most people tending goats, working as day labourers in rice fields, or harvesting coconuts, cashews and mangoes. According to Dr. Moore, a large percentage of the population is from the “most untouchable Hindu caste, Dalit”.
Dr. Moore said when he met Dr. Kumar; the Indian ophthalmologist was about to give up his practice, overwhelmed by the enormous need and his own, very limited resources.
“There are about one and a half million people living within a 40km radius of the village. For many of these people, there is no other access to medical services. The logistics of it meant he (Dr. Kumar) was just being beaten by the numbers,” he said.
The two doctors kept in touch and over the next year developed a plan, whereby Dr. Moore would sponsor Dr. Kumar – along similar lines to the child sponsorship program that Dr. Moore and his family were already participating in with the orphanage.
“I had previously been involved in the 80s and 90s in short-term overseas work. You fly in, fly out and provide eye care, but there’s a limit to what you can do in two weeks. It didn’t feel quite right doing surgery for just the lucky few. So I made a commitment to sponsor him, to re-equip him, and to up-skill him, particularly in surgery,” he said.
While it was clear Dr. Kumar was passionate about his work, he was providing general medical as well as ophthalmological care.
“I would give the ophthalmological side of his practice a ‘C’ grading, while his medical practice is probably a ‘C-‘ or ‘D’,” Dr. Moore said.
Once back home Dr. Moore started thinking creatively about what he could do and “opportunities just presented themselves”.
“For instance, when the private hospital I work at updated its operating microscope, I was able to find someone who could export the old one to India for me.
He said another company agreed to refurbish an old laser “and we shipped it to India”.
Dr. Moore said he also spent time working alongside Dr. Kumar in India.
“He was seeing a lot of patients with cataracts, pterygiums, bacterial keratisis and common trauma. There’s the usual need for reading and distance glasses as well, obviously.
“My practice in Tamworth does a lot of cataract surgery and retinal surgery. At times, we were poring over medical books, learning new techniques together.
“I see my role as to help equip, teach and supervise rather than being a provider of services. I really want to improve the quality of the medical services being provided – we have some way to go on that,” he said.
Dr. Moore admits one of the major problems with his program is that once Dr. Kumar retires there is no one to take over.
He said Dr. Kumar has been able to develop a network of 56 local people to provide some basic medical services but these people have no formal medical training.
Dr. Moore has also been able, through his local community in Tamworth, to arrange sponsorship of a dollar a day for some of these people, but the entire medical program relies on the work of Dr. Kumar.
“He’s 55 years old, so a succession plan is something we have to actively consider,” Dr. Moore said.
“This is just a really small project in rural India provisioning and up-skilling a local surgeon. I’m trained as an eye specialist – not as a third-world aid person. It is just me – and now a few people from my community in Tamworth – doing what we can. The project is now getting to a size where formal monitoring and reporting of its activities are needed.
“It started out with (Dr. Kumar and I) making the most basic connection: ‘I’m an eye doctor, you’re an eye doctor’… but we’ve become best of friends, really. That’s become one of the really great spin-offs. The medical side is only one aspect of it.
“We email constantly. I now go to India once or twice a year. When I go, I stay in his house as an honoured guest. He’s such an incredible person; such a humble person.
“We’ve been able to give him some resources, but in return, we’ve been changed – blessed – by our association with him,” Dr. Moore said.