Unsung Heroes and True Selflessness

On our service journey (through life, not just through India) it is quite common to cross paths with people whose passions run to profound and compelling projects. People like Dr. V, who works tirelessly to eradicate needless blindness. People like Krishnan, who spends his days feeding the destitute. People like Nipun Mehta, who has put service into the lives of thousands, thereby bringing technical solutions to whole sectors of small non-profit organizations who otherwise could never afford them.

It is not difficult to brand those who follow such altruistic visions as heroes. The very passion itself lends a degree of magic to what they do.

But there is a different sort of heroism at work in many stories of service, a less gaudy valor. There are so many who, though they have found true passion in other things, have nevertheless given themselves over to projects that put them in the service of some greater collective good. Theirs is a true selflessness, not because they burn with a passion for their work, but precisely because they have given up something they love for something more important.

Bala Krishnan, Pavi’s father, is a perfect example of this quiet, unassuming heroism. Raised in a village outside Madurai, he excelled in school and, after college, left for the US to pursue a Ph.D. in robotic engineering at the University of Wisconsin. In robotics, Bala found his passion. The work was in the vanguard of industrial processes, and satisfied both his intellectual curiosity and his creative instincts.

But while Bala and his young family were settling in to life in the US, big changes were underway in Madurai. Dr. V had experienced early success in revolutionizing the delivery of eye care and had developed the capacity to perform a vast number of cataract surgeries at extremely low cost. The sticking point was the cost of the implantable replacement lens which ordinarily would substitute for the removed cataracted lens. These cost, on average, nearly $200 per lens. Thus, Dr. V’s team was limited to providing poor patients from the villages a thick pair of glasses with which to restore their sight following surgery. The heavy, awkward, spectacles were particularly unsuited to village life; but they represented an acceptable alternative to blindness, for sure.
Bala Krishnan Bala Krishnan
Dr. V, however, was not satisfied: “Why can’t we produce lenses in India at a cost low enough to make them available to all, those who can pay and those who can’t?” On visits to the US, Dr. V would ask Bala this question. And eventually Bala would devise the answer Dr. V wanted: they could.

Bala returned to Madurai to head a new non-profit venture called Aurolab, and within a few short years, they were producing intraocular lenses at a cost of less than $10 each. Today, Aurolab produces nearly three-quarters of a million highest-quality lenses annually for use in sight restoring surgeries throughout the world, and produces a full range of low-cost pharmaceutical products related to ophthalmology and eye surgery. The company will soon be moving to brand new production facilities and will continue to expand production as it stays at the leading edge of lens-making technology.

Without Aurolab, millions who now see would still live in darkness, notwithstanding the best intentions and most diligent work of surgeons like Dr. V. Without Bala Krishnan sublimating his passion for greater service to humanity, Aurolab would not exist.

The next time you celebrate a Mother Theresa or a Dr. V, spare a thought for all the service-minded people who will never grab the limelight, but without whom our lives would be vastly poorer.

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