Hyderabad: The L V Prasad Eye Institute (LVPEI) was started in 1987 in Hyderabad. Close to 34 years later, when you think of eye care in India, it’s ranked amongst the top bracket that includes the Sankara Netralaya, Chennai and Aravind Eye Hospitals chain, started in Madurai along with perhaps the Rajendra Prasad Centre for Opthalmic Sciences, New Delhi.
The progress, diversification in expertise and the impact it has been creating over the past few decades has seen the LVPEI rightfully emerge as one of the modern landmarks in the 430 year old city of Hyderabad. From the poorest man in the neighbourhood of Hyderabad to Presidents of various countries it has been striving hard to extend the finest treatment.
Testimony to this is the visit in 2013 of the President of Liberia, Ms Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Laureate (Peace). In 2012, her son underwent treatment at the Hospital. She made it a point to visit the Hospital and see the facilities when she came to Delhi to receive the Indira Gandhi Peace Prize. So impressed was she that a request was made to Dr Rao to help set up eye care facilities in Liberia. Early in 2018, LVPEI accomplished the task and started training locals in that country.
The first time I met Dr Gullapalli Nageswara Rao, the founder of LVPEI was at the Sarojini Devi Eye Hospital during 1985. S D Hospital was the best in town those days and the high priest there was Dr Perugu Siva Reddy.
The stature, showman that Dr Siva Reddy was reflected in the grand events he hosted in the form international conferences. They were elaborate with huge garlands, laudatory intros of guests, especially Non Resident Andhra doctors led by Siva Reddy himself. It resembled a festive atmosphere.
At one such event, I recall Dr Rao was presented to the gathering along with Dr Sriram Sonti in the auditorium of the S D Eye hospital. Impressed by his credentials, scientific work and driven by the curiosity of a Cub Reporter to get a story for the day, I met Dr Rao after the inaugural function that stretched to two hours with all the fanfare of a marriage.
A year later, I heard that Dr Rao was firming up plans to set up a top class Eye Hospital in Hyderabad. During the late 1970s and1980s the call for NRIs to return and set up Centres of excellence or leadership in scientific research was pursued at the highest level. Dr Y Nayudamma, leather technologist returned at the call of Prime Minister, Ms Indira Gandhi as did Dr R A Mashelkar, Director General, Council of Scientific Industrial Research (CSIR) among many others.
In 1987, the L V Prasad Eye Institute took concrete shape. In the words of Dr Rao, his dream was made possible largely through the donation of 5 acre of land in the posh Banjara Hills area and Rs 1 crore by Mr Ramesh, the son of the legendary film director LV Prasad. Hence, the name to the Institute.
Dr Rao was working as an Associate Professor at the School of Medicine and Dentistry of the University of Rochester. He was born in Chodavaram, Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. He studied medicine in Guntur Medical College and a post-graduation from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi.
High commitment on quality:
From the beginning Dr G N Rao, as he is known, built the Institute on a Vision of quality eye care, cutting edge research and affordable treatment to the poor. One more distinctive character, he ensured was to treat a good percentage of patients free or highly subsidised. No wonder, when you drive past the hospital you can see large numbers of ordinary people waiting for their turn. Supplementing the hospital efforts NGOs have been organising food. A few years ago, the government also put in an escalator cum foot over bridge to give easy access to people on the busy road.
This commitment of Dr Rao has brought in donors like K Anji Reddy, founder of Dr Reddy’s Labs, NATCO Pharma. Kohli Centre, BVR Mohan Reddy, founder of Cyient along with several NRIs etc., who have done their bit to broaden the ambit of the hospital activities through liberal grants. At present LVPEI has presence in multiple cities like Visakhapatnam, Vijayawada and Bhubaneswar.
Professional standards are also high. Rao leads by example. When he reached 60 in 2005 he voluntarily stepped down from the top executive post. He brought in a professional Dr Ravi Thomas from CMC Vellore to head and himself turned Chairman and Mentor. Asked what prompted him to do so, Rao said he was inspired by great institution builders of the world and closer home in a way by Mr Narayana Murthy, Chairman of Infosys, who did that a few years earlier.
The only complaint people have about treatment is “We have to wait for a long time.” Yet, the wait is worth it for majority as the treatment is top class. In the decades gone by, there have been very few instances of political interference, problems with treatments etc. costs are competitive for those who want quick consultancy. The hospital has been able to largely keep itself away from political interface. The former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, NT Rama came to open the Eye Hospital.
Global recognition and Research
Global recognition also embraced Dr Rao at regular intervals in his distinguished career. In 2017 he was honoured with a place in the Hall of Fame of Ophthalmologists. The work of doctors at the Institute attracted collaborations with the best in the world. Research on stem cells by Dr V S Sangwan, Geeta Vemuganti and group hit headlines. MIT, Microsoft are collaborating on a range of innovations around eye care & technology.
It has one of the best Cornea banks in the world and does gene therapy to correct genetic eye problems. According to information about 38,000 corneal transplantation surgeries have been done. The bank has collected nearly a lakh of corneas.
The research was led for a long time by Dr D Balasubramanian, noted scientist and former director of CCMB and later by Dr S Shivaji, also from the CCMB. Interestingly, the hospital has a large collection of works of the well-known painter of Hyderabad, Mr Suryaprakash, which adorn some important spaces in the premises.
Striving to reduce the burden of blindness is a crusade for Dr Rao. Many programmes aimed at prevention are being pursued. He served as the President of the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness in 2004. A large initiative to screen children and ensure checking of sight problems with NGOs, the India Vision Institute (IVI) and global institutes like Brian Holden of Australia & efforts are expanding.
As he completes 76 years today, Dr Rao’s passion for work, research and to take on new challenges remains nearly the same as when I first met him three and half decades ago. He has published over 300 research papers in peer reviewed journals and has half a dozen honorary doctorates too from the UK, Australia and India.
Somasekhar Mulugu, former Associate Editor & Chief of Bureau of The Hindu BusinessLine, is a well-known political, business and science writer and analyst based in Hyderabad