Eye Doc Makes Annual India Trip, Strengthens Partnership to Prevent, Reverse Blindness

March 4, 2018

American ophthalmologist Dick Litwin recently returned from India, the latest part of his three-decade-long involvement with India’s eye care community through his position as lifetime board member of Berkeley, Calif.-based Seva Foundation.

Litwin and his wife, Judith Litwin, have traveled to India 37 times to help shape partnerships, introduce new technology and develop trainings for medical professionals.

Upon his return, he shares insights from Seva’s partners in India with the organization’s program managers.

Litwin got involved with eye care in India in 1981, when his wife expressed interest in sharing their skills with the global community — he as an eye doctor, she as a family therapist. “Judith said to me, ‘We need to go to India,’” Litwin explained, “And very soon, we were on the plane.”

On that first trip, Litwin met Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, known as “Dr. V,” founder of the renowned Aravind Eye Care System. Now the world’s largest eye care complex, Aravind served 4.7 million outpatients and performed more than 463,000 surgeries and laser procedures in the 2016-17 fiscal year.

On Litwin’s first trip to India, Venkataswamy took him to an eye camp in Pondicherry. One thousand people received cataract surgery over the course of a week.

“I was converted,” Litwin reminisced. “I realized something magical was going on. If one patient is static like a bird on a branch, an eye camp is different; more like a flock of birds sweeping across the sky.”

On that inaugural trip, Litwin introduced Aravind to the newly-developed technology of intra-ocular lenses. IOLs revolutionized cataract surgery. With Seva’s support, the Aravind system established in-country IOL manufacturing, bringing the cost down to the point where cataract surgery is so affordable that no one is turned away for lack of funds.

“The Aravind eye care system is fulfilling Dr. V’s vision of solving blindness,” said Litwin. “There has been someone on Seva’s Board of Directors from the Aravind system from the beginning. They help us, they teach us, and we work collaboratively on projects.”

On his most recent trip, Litwin visited Pune for the first time, to meet with the top brass at H. V. Desai Eye Hospital. H. V. Desai is involved in a Seva initiative to establish Vision Centers, “small optical shops in remote areas where there are no eye hospitals and tremendous numbers of blind people,” explained Litwin. Trained staff at these centers can prescribe glasses, treat diseases with antibiotics and take cell-phone photos of more complex problems to send to an eye hospital for diagnosis. The centers arrange transportation to the hospital for patients needing surgery. “We hope to reach a billion people through this approach,” Litwin said.

Dr. Colonel M. Deshpande at H. V. Desai, who worked with Venkataswamy, shared with Litwin that vision centers suffered from high staff turnover due to their remote locations. In response, a new system was devised where the centers started operating once a week on Market Day, at a central location like a religious institution.

People now know that they attend to their eye care needs on Market Day. Litwin will share this and other creative solutions with staff at Seva, who work with eye care providers in more than 20 countries.

Seva is able to use insights like these from Litwin’s trips to India to inform their work in other countries facing similar challenges.

The Litwins have formed several lifelong friendships with Indian colleagues over the years. On this most recent trip, they visited Dr. Asim Sil and his wife, Dr. Subhra Sil, at Vivekananda Mission Ashram Netra Niramay Niketan eye hospital, near Kolkata.

They’ve known Asim and Suhbra for 12 years, and Litwin has worked with them on earlier projects, like establishing a corneal transplant program. They now vacation regularly together, including a recent river trip in the Sundarbans, an area that sends patients to one of the two eye hospitals Seva supports in the region.

The Aravind Eye Care System sets the gold standard for eye care in India. The system’s latest branch hospital, which just opened in Chennai a few months ago, has the capacity to treat 6,000 patients daily. This new hospital is being run by Dr. S. Aravind – who was 12 years old when Dick and Judith first met him – and his wife, Dr. Haripriya, a dynamic cataract surgeon.

The Litwins’ many volunteer visits and personal relationships have grown Seva’s partnership network in India to include 60 partner eye care institutions based in 17 Indian states. Seva and its partners in other countries continue to benefit from best practices developed in India to make eye care accessible and affordable worldwide.