Samaritan for the Sightless

Padmashree awardee ophthalmologist Tony Fernandez has pioneered eye transplantation in Kerala in his dedicated service spanning half a century .

Published: 24th August 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd August 2014 07:31 PM   |  A+A-

Tony-Fernandez

Photo by Mithun Vinod

For octogenarian ophthalmologist Tony Fernandez, age is just a number. The zest with which he has brought light to so many people’s lives in a career spanning half a century, Fernandez will never be past the prime of his life. For his selfless service, the Government of India bestowed upon him the Padmashree in 2008. His eyes still has the spark that glistened 44 years ago, when he took the initiative to set up an eye banking facility for the first time in a private hospital in Kerala.

It was in 1970 that he set up the facility in the Little Flower Hospital at Angamaly, 40 km from Kochi. The hospital then was a small dispensary. Fernandez had special training in corneal transplant and squint from England and was practising at Madurai Medical College when he decided to return to Angamaly.

“I saw a large number of people would be able to see, if corneal transplants were undertaken,” he says. “For some reason, majority of the patients belonged to the financially weaker section of the society. Since there were a few facilities for corneal transplant here, they were referred to an institute in Ahmedabad. Now, how could a financially weak person afford a treatment there?” Thus was born his facility.

However, there was not much of encouragement. “To bring in public involvement, an eye bank association was set up,” says Fernandez. “Corporates and institutions such as the Lions Club and Rotary extended their support, and we started awareness classes. Special equipment was brought from different parts of the world. Slowly, eye transplants began to take place here.”

Since there were no storage facilities initially, the eyes had to be brought from Sri Lanka. Majority of the population in Sri Lanka practice Buddhism; it exhorts them to donate eyes. For many years, Sri Lanka was the major contributor of eyes to many parts of the world, including India. To bring in the donor eyes, special permission had to be taken from the Government of India, apart from paying `2,000 as customs duty. “It was difficult for Angamaly, being a remote village, to get permission. Hence, the government decided to grant permission to set up eye banks at Thiruvananthapuram and Calicut medical colleges,” says Fernandez.

“Earlier, the entire eye had to be taken out; later, it was just the cornea,” he says. It had to be put in an ice box and brought to the state by flight. Then it was taken to Angamaly by bus. But hardly anybody came forward to do this job. It was then that the association for blind came forward to help.

Fernandez is also a pioneer in organising free community camps. Initially, after consultation, the surgery was performed in the camp. Now it has changed. “After consultations, the patients are referred to the hospitals,” he says. Nevertheless, the octogenarian is happy with the way things have turned out regarding organ donation. “But we still have a long way to go,” he says.

Not ready to rest on his laurels, Fernandez has launched another project, Kazhcha 2020, in collaboration with actor Mammootty. “The purpose is to wipe out cataract blindness,” says Fernandez. “Satellite centres will be set up in every part of the state. People can undertake treatment free of charge.”

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