Originally published October 12, 2016 by Soma Basu in The Hindu.

Dr. Suzanne Gilbert

Dr. Suzanne Gilbert ©The Hindu

On the occasion of World Sight Day (October 13), public health specialist Dr. Suzanne S.Gilbert talks about her love for Madurai and why she dedicated herself to eye care.

One look at the profile of Dr. Suzanne S. Gilbert, the co-founder of Seva Foundation, USA, you find nothing related to ophthalmology in her initial years. Her social reach, the research she contributed to, her professional certifications and the degrees she attained, the trends she set – all mention her interest in international and public health issues, maternal and child health, health education and behaviour, medical anthropology. This was in the late 70s till she met Dr. G. Venkataswamy, the founder of Aravind Eye Hospitals.

Dr. V – as he was known to most – was unusual in many ways and left an impression on most of whom he met, explained and convinced them about his vision to sell millions of sight-restoring operations, just the way McDonald’s sells billions of burgers and Coca Cola sells billions of sodas. Suzanne was no exception.

Dr. V’s interest in every detail, the environment of care given to every patient from the time he or she enters the hospital to going out with vision back, the after-care and the continuing community education and awareness, his hyper vigilant and very systematic thinking and approach and commitment to improving the lives of others motivated Suzanne to look behind the miracles of eyesight.

Dr Suzanne Gilbert and Dr. V Aravind and Seva

Dr. Suzanne Gilbert with Dr. V ©Seva Foundation

That was also the time when Seva was working on the issue of blindness in developing countries and Suzanne chose to participate in the landmark Nepal Blindness Survey which underlined the importance of cataracts as a leading cause of blindness. A visit to Madurai synonymous with Aravind Eye Hospital in eye care was inevitable and Suzanne visited for the first time in 1986.

In the last three decades, she has returned to the city not less than 50 times. “It is always for activities related to Aravind Eye Care Systems (AECS)”, she says and adds, “Dr. V’s life epitomizes the kind of dedication I always strive for.”

Over the years, Suzanne became an important part of AECS, bringing duty and responsibility to a whole new level with the entire family and staff of Aravind who now script the rise and expansion of their services after Dr. V’s demise a decade ago.

Recognizing India as the global engine in developing comprehensive blindness prevention program and also acknowledging the Aravind way of functioning, Suzanne advocates innovations and how it links to the role of caring for patients. When you understand poverty and nutrition, it does not matter whether you are in the business of health or food. “You need to focus on the benefits and the experience of the end customer,” she says, “and innovation is crucial to achieve grand results with masses.”

Mobilizing financing, targeting this financing towards the most cost-effective health intervention and increasing funding for Research and Development have been at the core of Aravind’s activities enabling the group to perform 5.5 million surgeries and treat 48 million in outpatient in its 40 years journey.

Citing Aravind’s network of six tertiary, five secondary hospitals, 60 vision centres for primary examination with telemedicine, four eye banks, community outreach efforts (like screening one million school children), research and training institutes and the lens manufacturing Aurolab, Suzanne explains how the group uses funding to initiate a new activity and develops and pioneers it. “Once they are up, they become self-reliant but there is always a first time of doing many things,” says Suzanne, adding, the objective behind every action is to strengthen eye hospitals. She says Dr.V laid out the “Aravind way” which is now cultivated by the next generations. And that is to have a connection with the big extended family (there are about two dozen relatives who are eye surgeons), welcome other ophthalmologists into the fold and learn from exchange programs and workshops with other ophthalmology institutions and networking with thousands of employees/people.

“Only way an institution can grow is by its growing body of people and the challenge that Dr. V took on was to have vibrant and dedicated people in place and actively support all those who followed in his steps,” notes Suzanne who is more like a family friend of the Aravind group now. Recipient of this year’s Dr.G.Venkataswamy Endowment Award, she feels the most important way the international community can support the convergences in a compact integrated system is by funding the development and delivery of next level of eye care services in the face of more alternatives available now and the ensuing competition.

It is even more imperative now, according to Suzanne, to use game-changing technologies and support a large number of patients who need low-priced but equally important care. “And if you have the passion to reach out to the community, no challenge is big,” she says, adding, social impact investment needs time and long term commitment. “The Aravind group is always willing to give.”

"If you have the passion to reach out to the community, no challenge is big"

-Dr. Suzanne Gilbert


Dr Suzanne Gilbert and Dr. V Aravind and Seva

Dr. Suzanne Gilbert, co-founder of Seva Foundation with a portrait of Dr. G Venkataswamy, founder of Aravind Eye Care System ©The Hindu


Dr. Suzanne Gilbert currently serves as the Senior Director of Innovation and Sight Program at Seva Foundation in Berkeley, USA and has been co-designing and implementing eye care service delivery systems for some of the world's poorest communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Center promotes new ways to address emerging issues in community eye care and works to develop sustainable eye care services based in locally owned and operated institutions across the globe.

A sought-after speaker on health policy, sustainability, and building lasting global partnerships, Dr. Gilbert also coordinates the Human Resource Program Committee of the World Health Organization and the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, and serves as a consultant to the Global Outreach Committee of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.