Padma Bhushan Dr. Jaiveer Agarwal (1930–2009)
“If you’re going to live, leave a legacy.
Make a mark on the world that can’t be erased.” – Maya Angelou
In the 1950s, with sixty rupees in their hands, a young physician couple was passing through the city of Madras, now called Chennai. Enamored by the city’s grace, they made it their home and used up the money to set up a small eye clinic. Little did they know that their toil over the years would leave a legacy too bold to be told.
Dr. R. S. Agarwal was the leading ophthalmologist of the country and possibly the only ophthalmologist to have written a book with a foreword by the then Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri. His son, Dr. Jaiveer Agarwal, was born on September 24, 1930. Following his father’s footsteps, the path was already laid for him, but his destiny lay much further than becoming an ophthalmologist. While a student at SMS Medical College, Jaipur, he met a brilliant ophthalmologist and his companion for life, Dr. Tahira Agarwal. Together, they built a hospital, an institution, a legacy [Fig. 1].
“When I started my practice, I had no instruments, no scissor or knife. In 1957, I performed my first cataract surgery for Rs. 250. The patient gave me Rs. 200 in advance and that was very useful for me. I went straight to the market, bought instruments for Rs. 800, gave the shopkeeper 200 in advance and told him I will give the rest later.” The times were hard, but the world was a simpler place where trust had greater value than money. Using the new instruments and a makeshift autoclave while operating in the patient’s home, he restored the man’s vision to 6/5 in that eye.
An energetic entrepreneur, he was much ahead of his times. At the International Congress of Ophthalmology in Mexico in 1970, it came to him to build an ophthalmic hospital in the shape of an eye in Chennai. “I accomplished it in ’75, exactly. It took me five years to buy the land, and then to construct the hospital.” What was initially a two-storied building, flourished to a five-storied hospital and found a place in Ripley’s Believe It or Not for its unique shape. Today, the seeds that they had sown and tended have grown into Dr. Agarwals Group of Eye Hospital with over 135 branches in 11 countries across India and Africa.
Sachin Tendulkar, the legend in cricket, inaugurated Dr. Agarwals Eye Hospital in Bengaluru [Fig. 2], and Hon’ble Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Dr. Kalaignar Karunanidhi, inaugurated the renovated eye-shaped hospital in Chennai [Fig. 3].
The Birth of his Brainchild
Ophthalmology was never a money-making industry for him, and he made sure that his students understood that. He felt that what he had gained from society, he must give back in one form or the other. That gave birth to the “Eye Research Center” (ERC), where with the help of funds, he could operate at zero cost. At ERC, they gave patients food, IOLs, and medicines free of cost. Patients were screened, transported from small towns, treated, and taken back to their homes. When patients came to him with eye problems with poor prognosis, unlikely to improve with any intervention, he would never charge them.
Even when he was at his professional peak, Dr. Agarwal never stopped feeding the philanthropist in him. He was committed to eradicating preventable blindness in India and ensuring “Vision for Life” for all. He had always believed that with critical interventions, proper screenings and surgeries, a good number of people with blindness could, finally, see the light in their lives.
Forty-five years after its inception, the Eye Research Center has adopted villages and enabled more than 1 million people to see. On an average, 60 camps are conducted and at least 1000 cataract surgeries are performed every month for the underprivileged, providing quality eye care.
An Ophthalmic Legacy
Dr. J. Agarwal never was only a clinician. In addition to being a profound humanitarian, a pristine thinker, and a genius of an ophthalmologist, he was a dutiful innovator. He was the first to bring to Asia Refractive Keratoplasty with the Barraquer cryolathe which was the precursor of the excimer laser in the 1980s.
Successively, the hospital too has been credited with a plethora of “firsts,” including phakonit sub-1-mm cataract surgery, no anesthesia cataract surgery, aberropia, gas-forced infusion (air pump) in cataract surgery, the glued IOL technique, IOL scaffold, pre-descemet’s endothelial keratoplasty, contact lens-assisted cross-linking, corneal allogenic intrastromal ring segments (CAIRS), single-pass four-throw pupilloplasty, and pinhole pupilloplasty.
While holding himself to the highest standard in running the hospital, and introducing innovations in eye care, he also went from village to village to conduct hard-nosed campaigns for eye donation and the treatment of corneal blindness, with a special interest in correcting refractive errors among school children.
He encouraged young practitioners to start a practice of their own and also helped them financially to set things up. He treated his assistants like his own. He was the perfect gentleman.
Achievements Worth a Lifetime
In 1992, Dr. J Agarwal became the President of the All India Ophthalmological Society in the Golden Jubilee conference of the AIOS in Delhi [Figs. 4 and 5], a role he dutifully cherished, along with the Madras City Ophthalmological Association. Previously, he was the General Secretary of AIOS. The Afro-Asian Ophthalmic Congress was held in Chennai in 1976 under his leadership. In 2001, he was instrumental in inviting the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Hon’ble Dr. J Jayalalitha, to inaugurate the Indian Intraocular Implant and Refractive Society Conference in Chennai [Fig. 6].
His contributions to AIOS were monumental. He was unanimously liked by all and would often carry small gifts for young ophthalmologists in his pocket. He was available 24 × 7 for delegates and members and was constantly thinking about his colleagues and their benefits. He was one of those instrumental in getting custom duty exemption for eye instruments with the help of other top leaders of the AIOS so that every doctor could buy eye instruments with tax exemption. Even ophthalmologists in smaller towns throughout India could now have lasers for treating their patients.
While international awards came pouring in, including those from Singapore National Eye Center, the Eye Donation Society, Sri Lanka; the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, Miami, USA; and Barraquer Eye Institute, Bogota, Colombia, it was the Padma Bhushan, conferred on him on March 20, 2006, by the President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, that Dr. Agarwal cherished the most [Fig. 7]. He has also been conferred”The Lifetime Achievement Award” for his contributions to ophthalmology and his service to society by the AIOS.
A Man of Many Hats
He was a gentle person, only aggressive in his thinking. An ardent bridge player, he went on to win several matches in national and international tournaments. Mr. Sundaram, a world-renowned bridge player, said, “I have played bridge with Dr. Agarwal since ’75. He was a fan of ‘The Blue Club’ system played by Italian World Champions, despite its complexity and strain on memory. His demeanor at the table was always cheerful regardless of the result. It was astonishing to see that even during the latter stages of his life, he had lost none of his sharpness, his love for the game, or his zest for life.” His cheerful outlook made him a much sought after mentor. As many of his students recall, he taught them not only ophthalmology but a lot about team work, ethics, practice, family, and life in general [Fig. 8].
Apart from his professional accomplishments, he was a very proud father of two, and he spent quality time with his children. He encouraged them to become eye doctors, giving them onions to suture from a young age. It was his inner desire that his children and four grandchildren should also become ophthalmologists—a desire now fulfilled!
The Legend of a leader
He not only lived an honest life but also displayed his integrity till the very end of his life. Dr. Tahira Agarwal, with whom he built Dr. Agarwals Eye Hospital, passed away on April 13, 2009, and with her he lost the will to live and soon passed away. Even with his passing, Dr. Jaiveer and Tahira Agarwal, enabled others to see. Their corneas were transplanted to four patients.
Throughout his life, he practised what he preached and inculcated the great Indian tradition of sacrifice and charity.
He was keen that the patients’ pockets should neither determine the way they are treated nor limit their options for treatment. He never tried to tame the fire within. He lived and breathed ophthalmology. The contributions of Padma Bhushan Dr. J. Agarwal will echo in eternity as much as it does now.
“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime.
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.” - HW Longfellow
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Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
Team ToY would like to thank Sarah Jean, B. Mala, and B. Sudha for their immense help with the drafting of the manuscript. We are also grateful to Dr. Abhay Vasavada, Ahmedabad, Dr. Mahipal Sachdev, Delhi, and Dr. Suryaprakash R., Chennai, for their thoughts, and time.