During my visit to Sri Lanka to interview the president of the country, I was asked if I wanted to see anyone else or visit any place of interest. I said yes indeed. I wanted to pay my respects to Dr. Hudson Silva who was making a reputation worldwide as the pioneer of corneal transplants.
Within a day, I was taken to Dr. Silva’s house-cum clinic within the city. The place was a tea-making plant outside Colombo. After visiting his house, I was surprised in more ways than one. First, because of the humility of the man and the simplicity of the place and the area. I had thought that given his international reputation he would be living in a better house and would have a well-appointed clinic especially after reading an article about him in the Readers’ Digest, a monthly magazine selling 18 million copies. The magazine had given him immense coverage.
Dr. Silva was humble and modest beyond belief and I at once compared him with someone else of similar achievements in the West or even in the Arab world where the doctor or pioneer would be living in posh surroundings and would be incredibly difficult to be interviewed.
He was not even wearing a ready-made suit or an imported one from Mumbai or Harrods in London. But after an hour’s conversation I realized that he was not the type who would hanker after such worldly goods.
He was the founder and president of the International Eye Bank, Tissue Bank, the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society and an honorary fellow of the College of Ophthalmologists of his country. Those were fine qualifications but in his life he had achieved much greater feats and rendered great services to humanity. In fact he started his career to collect corneas while he was at Nalanda College, Colombo. He received his first set in l959 and stored it in his home refrigerator which he showed to me, or a newer one in fact, at his locality at Wijerama Mawatha in Colombo. He pointed to his wife Iranganie who was his primary help and support with whom he set up the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society in l961.
He faced some opposition from the majority Buddhist population on moral grounds but he managed to convince them that donating corneas was a great act of charity much more important than donating a car, a hut or clothes.
While sitting in his house sipping tea with milk, the Lankan style similar to Indian homemade tea, he received a request for two corneas from Taiwan which he promptly arranged. He was working with very few assistants at the time. So I asked him if he charged fees and set any price for the gift. He said no but he did not mind a donation to help him improve and expand the service now that requests were being received from various parts of the world. I promised to publicize the service in the Arab world by writing about him which I did and I think he received some donations from individuals and a few requests from those who needed corneas. Knowing the Arabs, I am sure they sent him some money.
In due course the service gathered steam as thousands of people in Sri Lanka signed up to donate their corneas after death and a similar campaign was launched for tissue donation and collection.
Starting with one set of corneas sent to Singapore, his eye donation society has so far given away over l00,000 to beneficiaries in over 60 countries. Imagine one man’s vision and dedication free of charge helping to restore the eyesight of so many people with God’s blessings. No wonder he was honored with scores of titles and awards. In Pakistan, they named an eye hospital after him, the Hudson Silva Lions Eye Hospital, Gulberg, Lahore.
Dr. Silva, although slim and getting old had immense energy to go ahead, with his tissue bank passed by an act of Parliament l987 named the Model Human Tissue Bank in Colombo, for donation at home and abroad.
A few years after his death — in l999 —the United Nations Association of Sri Lanka joined with the Sri Lanka Eye Donation Society to start the Sight Project to assist people in need of cornea transplant through UN associations in their respective countries.
Dr. Silva’s society now has 450 branches and l5,000 trained volunteers who are ready and experienced to remove donor eyes on demand.
Extraction, according to published data, has to be carried out within eight hours, packed in ice, and received in his clinic within four hours. The extraction process has to be handled with care to avoid damaging the cornea’s thin layer of cells on the inner surface of the cornea that pumps water away to keep it clear. The transplant is carried out within five to 21 days. The donated corneas are tested for HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases.
I followed up Dr. Silva’s medical achievements and philanthropy with special care and admiration. He remained a modest man with modest means. He could have been a millionaire if he wanted to but as he told me he never charged money for his services nor did the donors ask for money despite their poverty.
All he wanted was to serve humanity in need and he was always pleased to say that the fact that there were formerly blind people in remote parts of the world who could see once again because of God’s blessings and his humble service, gave him supreme happiness.
That was his reward which could not be measured in cash or kind.
n Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah.