Heroes of Orbis: Dr. Balamurali Ambati, M.D., PH.D., M.B.A.

Meet cornea specialist and Orbis volunteer Dr. Balamurali Ambati. Bala, as he is known in the eye care community, is the youngest person ever to qualify as a doctor and entered the Guinness Book of World Records for this feat in 1995. What an honor to have him as part of Team Orbis.

The extraordinary Dr. Bala Ambati is an Orbis hero and youngest person to ever qualify as a doctor!

Since 2006 Dr. Ambati has been making the world a little bit brighter — taking part in nine Orbis training programs spanning three continents and exchanging skills with eye surgeons in hard-to-reach communities.

Special Memories

The Orbis projects that hold special memories for him have been the ones where he has trained local teams on cornea transplants. These global projects have led to him forging long-lasting bonds with local partners which has led to ongoing mentoring.

Since the pandemic began, the Oregon resident has turned toward virtual mentoring — supporting a community of eye doctors via our telemedicine platform, Cybersight, and delivering webinars on 'Cornea on the Cutting Edge' and 'Crosslinking Approaches for Keratoconus'. He has also contributed to the distance learning Cameroon pediatric ophthalmology program.

Bala told us he was inspired to become a doctor after spending three months in hospital recovering from a burns accident when he was four years old, and he chose to go into ophthalmology because 'with ophthalmology you combine everything and have the ability to take care of patients of all ages. You see all different types of diseases, get to do exquisite procedures, and help support patients of all ages over time. Ophthalmology is dynamic and exciting with constantly evolving technologies.'

Skills & Expertise

At just 13 years old Dr. Ambati graduated from New York University and earned his medical degree from Mount Sinai School of Medicine at 17. He completed his residency at Harvard University and fellowship at Duke University.

India-born Dr. Ambati explained how this was made possible, saying: “I began school at age six like everybody did, but I completed two years of school each year, finished early and went on to medical school. Everything I’ve achieved has been through God’s grace, my family’s support, parents and brother.

Dr. Ambati performs cornea transplantation surgery in a Jakarta hospital in 2012

“By finishing training early, I was able to finish my fellowship in cornea by 24, and now at 44, I’m pretty well experienced in the fields of cornea and cataract and have learnt a lot of things. I’m fortunate to continue learning and contributing to ophthalmology and working with wonderful people.”

He is currently Director of Ophthalmology & Visual Science at the University of Oregon’s Knight Campus for accelerating scientific impact. With 15 years of experience as a cataract, cornea and refractive surgeon, Dr. Ambati has developed several ophthalmic devices and was named as No. 1 Ophthalmologist in the top 40 under 40 global competition by the Ophthalmologist Magazine.

Teacher & Trainer

It was mentor and fellow Volunteer Faculty surgeon Dr. Roberto Pineda, who first told him about Orbis. After applying in 2005, Dr. Ambati embarked on his first training project to Ghana in 2006. After that, he joined our sight-saving programs in India, Indonesia, Panama, the Philippines and Malaysia training eye health professionals on both the Flying Eye Hospital and in local hospitals.

Explaining what it is like to volunteer for Orbis, he said: "It’s rather nostalgic to think about my work with Orbis with all the big changes we’ve experienced over the last few years. When there were in-person programs, it’s a very impactful week. It's high intensity long days. On day one you focus on meeting patients and deciding who are the best surgical candidates. We discuss plans with the medical teams we are training, and on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we operate.

"Friday is dedicated to post-op work and lectures. This is one of the very good things about Orbis programs, they’re focused on skills transfer and teaching and sharing knowledge. We’re increasing the capability of local surgeons, but not just the surgeon, the whole eye care team to ensure everyone from the nurses to the anesthesiologists, the sterilizers, etc… the whole eye care team is supported. This is unique. Orbis programs are not just about not flying in and out, it’s about leaving a legacy behind."

Dr. Bala Ambati

Cornea specialist at Pacific ClearVision Institution and Orbis volunteer

Teach­ing a man to fish as they say. It’s not only what you do in the week you’re there with Orbis, but try­ing to make a mark in the local com­mu­ni­ty for many years to come.”

When asked about a patient who made an impact on him, he recalled: “When I was in the Philippines, I treated a young girl who was 10 years old and had lost her lens in an accident several years before. She hadn’t seen for probably half of her life, yet all we had to do was replace the lens, insert a new one. It took ten minutes and was a fast procedure with a huge impact. She could see!

“She wasn’t missing seeing things to the right of her as that’s where her vision loss was. She could be a normal little girl, and to help somebody like that, it’s amazing to know you’ve now probably affected 60-70 years of their life.”

Taken during a surgery in Panama in 2013

Highlighting the challenges of treating cornea disease and injuries in places with limited resources, he said: "A significant barrier can be a lack of refrigeration. It’s necessary to use a cornea within two to four weeks following the death of a donor and to have a good place to store - an eye bank. This can be a challenge in many low- or middle-income counties alongside the rate of donation. The US is a leader, as is India and Sri Lanka, however much of the rest of the world are not commonly undertaking donations and therefore import corneas.

"To complete the surgery, there are a lot of visits with the patient, we monitor and take care of them for months and years afterwards. This is another contributing factor as to why I continue to have good connections to so many of those I work with with Orbis, as we do keep in touch and support the patient for the long term."

Dr. Ambati added: "When working on an Orbis program, the conditions we see are in a much more advanced stage of development. There may also be a lack of imaging, instrumentation, physicians or a lack of medical infrastructure which we often take for granted. In the US, people often have cataract surgery when they can’t drive or read or play golf, but in India, Africa, or other places, it’s sadly when that person can’t see the food on their plate, so the impact of their vision loss has far reaching implications, not only for the patient but their families and communities.

"Everything is more challenging, with the advanced stage of eye conditions, the treatment is more technically difficult and you’re not in your home environment. This makes things more complicated but it’s good and shows how we adapt and develop to meet the task at hand."

Dr Ambati, thank you for being such a valuable asset to the Orbis family and for empowering eye doctors globally to deliver quality eye care in their communities. Your unique set of eye health skills and years of experience are a huge benefit to our training projects both on and offline. You are truly something special. Thank you for helping us transform people's lives!

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