The Story of Ankara University Vehbi Koç Eye Hospital
My business was progressing and so were my profits. Once more, my mind turned to thinking of new services I might be able to provide for the good of all. I’m not sure why, but I had a great interest in blindness. I can never forget how important an organ the eye is to human beings. The renowned professor, late Süreyya Gördüren, and his colleagues were working on the mezzanine floor of Ankara University School of Medicine’s old building. Both Süreyya and his deputy, the young and talented Professor Cahit Örgen, who eventually took over from him, had considered establishing an eye bank but not been able to get the idea off the ground. The two professors were successfully correcting blindness in some patients with an operation called keratoplasty. As they explained to me, the basis of this operation was altering the transparent part of the eye, the cornea, with a piece taken from another eye. Obtaining material from a healthy cornea was essential for the operation. If an eye bank could be established, people could pledge to donate their eyes while still alive, meaning that after their death they could be stored in the eye bank to be used in future operations. Following the establishment of the world’s first eye bank in New York in 1945, the idea rapidly caught on across the globe. Eye banks were established in Tunisia, Morocco, Syria and Egypt before ours.
The Eye Bank Association of Turkey arose from the efforts of Professor Süreyya Gördüren to set up an eye bank, and Refik Koraltan, Speaker of the Grand National Assembly, was made honorary president. Acting upon the advice of Refik Koraltan, Prof. Süreyya Gördüren wrote to me requesting help on April 1, 1957. Deeply moved by the sincerity and heartfelt concern with which the letter was written, I wrote the following words to our general manager, Hulki Alisbah, on April 4, 1957, asking him to look into the situation:
“The subject is very important. On the other hand, we do have other commitments to meet. I would be overjoyed if there is any possibility of supporting this important endeavor, but I don’t know anything about it—the nature of support it would require or what else it might necessitate.”
Hulki Alisbah did some research and wrote back to me with his findings on April 8, 1957:
“For 15 years, it hasn’t been possible to remove the outer cataract attached to the clear part [of the eye]. Instead, the cataract is removed along with the clear part and replaced with the clear, round part of a cataract-free eye removed in the same way from a deceased person. It fuses with the eye 30–35 days after the operation, restoring sight to the patient… According to the professor, this process cannot be completed at the University Eye Clinic because the entire facility only contains 45 beds. To develop the skills of their students and assistant doctors, they need to fill the beds with a wide variety of eye patients, but for this operation each patient needs to be in hospital for 30–35 days. If they assign five of the beds for this operation, and those beds change over six times a year, that still means they can only restore sight to 30 people. Trachoma damage is really widespread in our country. There are already hundreds of patients waiting. Therefore, a hospital needs to be built and furnished with all kinds of equipment so that these patients can be treated separately from other eye patients, but still in conjunction with the university.”
This letter really moved me and I decided to help. On April 25, 1957, I wrote to Dr. Süreyya Gördüren and the Ankara University rector of the time, Professor Hikmet Birand, informing them of my decision. Professor Gördüren was one of the most energetic people I have met in my life. He immediately spoke to those concerned and we donated 1,200,000 Turkish lira. That’s how work on the Eye Bank in Cebeci next to the University Hospital began. Assistance was obtained from the army. The German government helped to bring equipment. The Red Crescent and Eye Bank Association also helped immensely. In no more than one and a half years, on Monday December 3, 1963, the new building and its clinics opened for service.
Three years after the first section had opened, Süreyya Gördüren passed away. One day, his successor, Professor Cahit Örgen, came to me to say that the Eye Bank wasn’t able to meet the demand and asked if I would help them to build a second section. I told him that the first section had provided a great service to the country and that I would give the same help, 1,200,000 Turkish lira, for another section. Work began after I donated the money in 1970 and the second section opened at the end of 1972.
Vehbi Koç, Hayat Hikâyem (My Life Story), 4th Edition, Vehbi Koç Vakfı Yayınları, Istanbul, 1983, pp.115–17