Written by Team ParentCircle and published on 23 July 2021.
Heart disease is a common cause of death in India. While the financially secure can afford treatment, it is difficult for the underprivileged. But Dr Kiron Varghese is working hard to change this.
Heart disease affects innumerable people, year after year. According to the study, 'Divergent trends in ischaemic heart disease and stroke mortality in India from 2000 to 2015: a nationally representative mortality study', authored by Calvin Ke et. al, and published by The Lancet in August 2018, cardiovascular disease caused more than 2*1 million deaths in India in 2015. That is more than a quarter of all deaths, across all ages. Meaning, 1 in 4 deaths in India is caused by heart disease.
Alarming statistics indeed! Add to this the high cost of treatment and it makes for a bleak scenario for heart patients in India. While the financially-secure may be able to afford the treatment, it is often the underprivileged who struggle to procure the required funds.
However, one person is working hard to ensure that the poor and needy patients have access to proper heart treatment. Meet Dr Kiron Varghese, Professor and Head, Department of Cardiology, St John's Medical College & Hospital, Bengaluru. For this doctor, a burning desire to make angioplasty and other procedures affordable to poor patients led to the setting up of the first free angioplasty camp by a private hospital (St John's) in India.
In a candid chat with ParentCircle, Dr Varghese talks about the idea behind the camp, the journey of raising funds, the support of his family and the importance of a healthy heart.
You are making headlines for offering free angioplasty for the poor. How did this initiative come about and what triggered it?
Often, I come across a lot of patients unable to afford treatment, especially expensive procedures such as coronary angioplasty. This used to constantly bother me. For years, I have been helping numerous patients to undergo cardiovascular treatment by arranging funds to pay a part of the total expense incurred. In this manner, I help in making angioplasty and other costly procedures a bit more affordable for them. Further, I have always had the desire to perform surgical procedures free of cost for patients who can't afford it; but it was hampered by the lack of resources.
I gave shape to my dream by initiating a Cardiology Poor Patient Fund in St John's Medical College by making a small personal contribution. This was around 15 years ago. Since then, several kind-hearted and generous people have made numerous donations to this fund. Many of the donors were my affluent patients who donated of their own free will - purely after observing the work we do and the financial difficulties faced by some of our less-fortunate patients.
Is this the first time you are taking on something like this?
Although we have helped numerous patients over the past 10-15 years through procured funds that have reduced the patients' bills by 20 to 90 per cent, this is the first fully-free angioplasty camp. In fact, I do believe this is the first such initiative by a private hospital in India. I have, however, participated in numerous free heart check-up camps at various locations. These camps offered free blood tests to check the lipid profile, haemoglobin levels, blood sugar levels and creatinine for about 100-200 patients at a time. I have also been conducting a free health clinic once a month at my church for the past 10 years or so.
My wife, an ophthalmologist, is also quite passionate about helping those who are less fortunate, and has performed several eye surgeries at a reduced cost.
How did you raise the funds for these surgical procedures?
A few months ago, I reached out to the chief of a stent company and asked him if he could donate some stents to carry out surgical procedures for poor patients. He readily agreed to this request. My next step involved approaching the Finance Director of the hospital to see if the cost of the procedure could be reduced and instead, charged mainly for consumable items like catheters, tubing and medicine without taking into account factors such as overheads and salaries. This request also came through. Finally, I approached the Medico-Social Work department and requested financial aid from them through their contacts with philanthropic individuals. They too readily agreed. With that I realised I was close to achieving this goal, and went ahead and announced it.
What has been the response of the public and the patients to your kind gesture?
The public has been very appreciative, and many people have wholeheartedly shared the news of this free camp to all their friends through social media. Many people have done their bit to promote this initiative. Several individuals have promoted it on various websites. In fact, a link to one of the websites gathered 16,000 'likes'! The overall response to the camp has been positive and, based on the feedback, I feel encouraged to do more camps like this one.
How has your family/children responded to your philanthropic initiative?
My family is very happy with this initiative, although they are concerned about the extra workload on me, taking into consideration my busy schedule. While my younger son, Rohit, wrote a touching post on Facebook that garnered much appreciation, my elder son, Roshan, helped create a poster about the event that was circulated widely through social media and WhatsApp. The poster was also printed and posted in the hospital.
As a parent, this gesture is a great example to your children. What are your thoughts about it?
I think our actions often speak louder than words. My wife and I were very happy when my son gave 10 per cent of his first salary to help fund the education of poor children. He has been consistently donating ever since.
How important is empathy/kindness as a virtue to you? Do you stress on its importance to your children?
My wife and I consider it a great virtue and an essential attribute of a great person. I don't recall overtly mentioning or stressing it to our children, but I think they have imbibed it.
How do you instil these virtues in them?
I feel the best way is by being an example and I have tried my best to do so. Apart from that, at mealtimes and family discussions we also discuss and appreciate people who have done commendable deeds, however small it might seem.
India usually lives in a myth that heart care is not very important for children. What is your opinion?
Heart care is not only for the elderly. Atherosclerosis (the condition whereby fat deposits and blockages are formed inside blood vessels) begins in youth. Increasingly, we are seeing many risk factors for atherosclerosis in children and adolescents. These include obesity, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol levels and even diabetes. It is important to address these risk factors in childhood and adopt healthy lifestyles from a very young age, as early as three years.
Is there a rise in heart disease among children? If yes, why?
Rheumatic heart disease was a common heart disease in children, but its incidence has considerably reduced. This can be attributed to improved living standards and medical care. However, the risk factors which lead to heart attack, stroke and kidney failure are increasing alarmingly in children and adolescents, owing to unhealthy lifestyles and eating habits.
What can parents do to help keep their child's heart healthy?
There are many things parents can do. They can serve fruits and nuts at home as snacks instead of biscuits and chips. In general, processed foods are unhealthy and I tell my patients to avoid any food item that comes ready to eat in a packet such as biscuits, chips and fries. Further, it is best to avoid sugary food items from the bakery as much as possible. Maybe, occasionally kids can have some as a treat. Also, avoid deep-fried items and junk food, especially those that have not been prepared at home. Sugary drinks are particularly unhealthy and are to be avoided, or at least consumed only occasionally. Encourage consumption of whole fruits instead of fresh fruit juice and avoid packaged juice.
How important is it to start young?
It is extremely important to start young, since it is very difficult to undo some of the harmful effects of an adverse lifestyle. Once blockages form inside blood vessels, it is virtually impossible to get rid of them. So, early heart care and healthy habits are the keys to good health.
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