Sudhanva Shetty Shetty
Writer, coffee-addict, likes folk music & long walks in the rain. Firmly believes that there's nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate.
On Nepal’s mountainous trails, thousands make their way to the miracle doctor – Sanduk Ruit. The 62-year-old Dr Ruit is an ophthalmologist. In a long and distinguished career, he has restored eyesight to more than 1,00,000 people. This is a number that is the highest in history, making Dr. Ruit one of the most significant faces in the global effort against blindness.
Dr. Ruit’s accomplishments have been lauded internationally, been the subject of several documentaries and films, and been conferred several honours. In 2007, he was appointed an Honorary Officer of the Order of Australia “for service to humanity by establishing eye care services in Nepal and surrounding countries, and for his work in teaching and training surgeons, and technical innovation.”
You have restored the sight of over 100,000 people; The New York Times said this is more than any doctor in history. What inspired you to get into ophthalmology, and what inspires you to keep going?
When, as a young general doctor, I saw that a simple intervention like cataract surgery could make such a big difference to people’s lives, it inspired me to get into ophthalmology. During my professional career, events like the time a young lady who had been blind for a long time regained her sight and saw her child for the first time ever – such emotional moments inspired me further.
One of my trainee surgeons from Vietnam sent me a sculpture of a marble horse with a note saying “from the patient to my teacher who is a sculptor.” I had operated successfully and he presented me this. These events of quality sight restoration and training are what inspire me to keep going.
You faced difficulty in your childhood days when it comes to education. How did you persist, and what are the values you learnt from these hardships?
I simply had no choice but to face the hardships. There were no alternatives, and I have always learnt that hardships only strengthen your tolerance, willpower, and commitment to society. I have somehow developed all of this out of my hardships.
On eradicating blindness in Nepal, you said, “If we can do this in Nepal, it can be done anywhere in the world.” In the fight to eradicate blindness, you have been one of the most recognisable faces. What are the major challenges that doctors like you face in your quest?
Doctors like myself who are from a developing country face an issue of credibility, lack of resources, and lack of technology. We have to work much harder than our colleagues in the West to prove the same things. It is very important for somebody like me to be a trendsetter and prove and vindicate every step of my struggle.
In cureblindness.org, it is written,“In the face of heavy scepticism from other doctors in the field, Dr Ruit tirelessly worked to prove that high-quality care could be successfully delivered in places considered squalid by western standards.” Why are doctors sceptical in your field, and how can this be addressed?
When I started my career as a young ophthalmologist, the conventional belief was that state of the art, good quality medical intervention is impossible in developing countries as it is expensive and complex. I have always fought and proven that low-cost, appropriate technology does not mean inferior quality technology.We have proven this many times in the last 25 years, whether this be in standardising surgical delivery systems that are high-quality and affordable, high-quality intraocular lens or setting up smart, replicable, sustainable eye care and training models. Furthermore, these have been published in reputable international medical journals.
According to a National Geographic documentary, you have successfully operated in North Korea and received the adulation of Kim Jong-il as well. Could you provide us with details about this incident?
I have always been very clear on the fact that I am neither a politician nor a human rights activist. I am only a die-hard soldier against blindness. Once we standardised and fine-tuned the surgical delivery system and its training, we decided to help blind people globally. In our research of blindness-prevalence, North Korea came up as one of the most marginalised countries. And because of my stubbornness, I decided to go and help the needy people in countries like North Korea, Indonesia, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Ghana etc.
We were somehow successful in doing this and over the years the number of doctors trained, number of eyes that have been restored with good quality surgery, is significant. We have been able to set up a system wherein our team continuously visits them and we have doctors coming for training. Like I said, our focus is on the blind people.
Coming to a more general topic: How important do you think is healthcare, and what are your views on universal healthcare?
I think universal healthcare is an integral component of basic human welfare. I really believe in high quality, preventive, and curative health for all. At present, unfortunately, inequity exists between continents, between countries, and between states.
How feasible is fully government-sponsored healthcare? Or are you more in favour of a public-private partnership (PPP) model or a fully private model?
There are very few countries where there is good governance. Generally, governance of countries is a big issue due to political will and vision. In places where there is good governance, I believe state-sponsored healthcare becomes useful and important and it will deliver to the public. But generally, this is not the case. Therefore, a public-private partnership is really important. I believe it is important because this will allow no barriers for treatment for marginalised communities as well as set the trend for high-quality healthcare. I have always believed you have to treat more powerful people to allow the treatment of more powerless people. The 21st century demands that we create an economic business model that ensures a win-win situation for everybody. One way to address this is effective social entrepreneurship.
In India, medical education is often seen as a tedious process. Students are often struck by the lengthy and weary nature of medical education in India. For many, these factors serve as a deterrent to become doctors. How can this situation be reversed? Or do you think the current system is efficient enough?
At present, it is impossible to bring in revolutionary change when it comes to medical education, which is a lengthy, intensive investment. I see a slow change of process when technology such as digitisation will take over.
Do you have a message to the lakhs of medical students in South Asia and around the world?
I do feel that our days are numbered and destiny has given us certain mandate. Medical treatment allows us to be very fortunate to deliver this to millions and I feel indebted to contribute to society. I hope medical students around the world feel the same.
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