The story of Dr Jitender Aggarwal, a successful dentist who got afflicted by macular degeneration of the retina, which leads to blindness and how he set a successful social enterprise riding on faith
Prachi Raturi Misra
Days merged into nights and the phone, it didn’t stop ringing. With two dental clinics to manage in West Delhi between him and his wife, and a three-year-old to come back to, life was as perfect as it could be. “At least that is what I thought,” he says with a smile.
The best was yet to come his way, like Dr JitenderAggarwal puts it. In 2004, while he was examining a patient’s mouth, it seemed blurry. He adjusted the light overhead, but it didn’t help much. Must be the exhaustion of the extended hours, he decided and began the next day, just like another. Till he noticed his vision still seemed cloudy.
Once he told his wife, she jokingly told him how missing their lineup of patient appointments would be more expensive than him going to see a doctor and so the couple headed to an eye specialist.
Little did they know that drive to the doctor was to change their life forever. Dr Aggarwal was diagnosed with macular degeneration of the retina, which was to slowly but surely result in vision loss. “I did not know what hit me. The day passed in a haze,” he recalls. Morning doesn’t always show the day, he thought to himself as he sank into his sofa, the evening sun filtering through.
For there they were, that morning, joking, laughing looking at their little boy pottering in the house, speaking gibberish. And here he was, that evening, looking at the beautiful evening sun filtering through the yellow curtains giving a magical glow to this little world of his. And yet he felt nothing but broken.
How would things look, going forward, he wondered. Would he be able to choose the colour of the new curtains the coming Diwali, would he be able to help his wife decorate the home for their son’s birthday? And what about his work? The old lady with the gentle smile whose root canal had two more sittings left. How would he look in a beard, if he couldn’t shave, how would he drive to his clinic? These and several other questions crowded his mind. And no, he didn’t want to speak about his fears. It somehow gave them a definitive feel. What if today was a bad dream? Maybe he would wake up the next morning and everything would be just like it was.
Sadly, it wasn’t. Nothing was.
He was angry, he was dejected, he was irritable, sometimes all of this and much more. The next three years, were the toughest of his life. From being a recluse to shouting sprees to suicidal thoughts, he went through it all. “It was like I was in the middle of a storm with something new hitting me each time. It is not easy to see something so important slip away from you and the helplessness I felt,” he says honestly.
The fight within
Looking back, he says, mental health for individuals with disabilities is crucial. If he had got support from a mental health professional, those four years would have been less of a challenge.
“I know I was holding on to a thin rope, which could have snapped any time. And it does, for many people with disabilities, which is why mental health for them is so crucial. One feels little passion towards anything. You crib, you become negative, nothing seems to improve, it is a loop of sorts that needs the right direction to break.”
He goes on to add, “It is not easy to deal with the societal pressure of how you are viewed. In my case the challenge was that I had seen how differently the world treated me when I hadn’t been diagnosed with macular degeneration, which would slowly turn me blind. When you see the attitude of staff that waited for instructions from you change or how your patients view you, shift, you experience dejection. It is almost like when you see, you are perfect, when you can’t you are good for nothing. Seeing that dejection for you is the hardest part. It seems like the dead end. And the only thing that can keep one going is support.”
In Dr Aggarwal’s case, it came from his family and his close friend from dental college, Dr Dinesh Jain.
While his family supported him financially and emotionally, his friend became his anchor, always showing him the bright side of life even though he seemed to be losing his physical vision.
Seeing the light of hope within
After failed attempts to get a job at dental colleges/institutes where he could have easily lectured students on the theory and several other places, when his friend, Dr Jain told him that visually impaired could learn how to use computers, he felt hope rekindle.
Together the friends went to National Association for Blind (NAB) in RK Puram, Delhi. Since the distance would be too much, they found out they could get a trainer at home. Over the next three months, Dr Aggarwal learnt how he could use computers. Once he did, he found a unique job – medical transcription.
“Voice transcriptions from doctors in US and UK came to us and we had to type them out. This is needed by insurance companies abroad. I still remember my first earning from that was Rs 6000 but that 6000 felt like several lakhs,” he smiles.
He went to other computer training centres for the visually impaired and inquired what the ones who got training did post that. Everyone drew a blank. “Clearly there was a gap between training and getting these people jobs. Weren’t there, several others like me grappling with other disabilities? I at least had some kind of financial backup, several others didn’t. Couldn’t I help a few others pick up what I was doing?”
Helping others see the light
That thought was the birth of Sarthak Educational Trust. After he trained a few visually impaired who were taught medical transcription and they found work, Dr Aggarwal felt the happiness he hadn’t felt in years. It was a different high. Soon he decided to turn one of his clinics into a training centre. This was in 2008. Today 15 year later, Sarthak Education Trust has a full-fledged office in Delhi. They have outreached two million people, helped 60,000 individuals get employed. So far 2000 companies (including five-star hotels and some leading MNCS, retail spaces and more) have hired special individuals trained by Sarthak at their 25 physical centres spread over 20 states. “Not because these organisations are doing charity but because they also feel these youngsters have skill sets that they need and that they are so much more dedicated to their jobs. This dedication stems from the fact that these companies have shown faith in their capabilities and given them a chance to be financially independent. It is a mutually satisfying association.”
When the Kaun Banega Crorepati team reached out to him to be featured in the show as a Karamveer, he knew he was doing something right.
All of this, says Dr Aggarwal happened because he lost his eyesight. “If I hadn’t lost my eyesight, I would still be examining people’s mouth and seeing the filth,” he chuckles.
On a more serious note, he adds, “Today I am so thankful to God that it happened because if it didn’t, how could I help so many people lead a life of dignity? I was living in my own world and now here is this new world where every little thing that I am able to do for someone, means so much more,” he says with a Zen like persona.
Of course, there are still challenges one faces but the victory after challenges is a different high. “When you know you are helping someone become self-supportive and lead a life of dignity, there is no better feeling,” he says.