Park City physician is working to cure blindness around the world
June 14, 2013
Dr. Geoffrey Tabin, a world-renowned eye surgeon and the fourth person to stand atop the tallest mountain on each of the world’s seven continents, bounds up the stairs at The Park Record in a Miners Day Funky 5K T-shirt. It is a rare day off during a busy work schedule that spans three continents, and he is using it to spread the word about "Second Suns," a new book about his organization’s efforts to cure blindness in some of the poorest communities in the world.
Tabin is hoping "Second Suns" will highlight The Himalayan Cataract Project, the nonprofit he co-founded with Dr. Sanduk Ruit, in much the same way the international bestseller "Three Cups of Tea" shed light on Greg Mortenson’s efforts to build schools for young girls in Pakistan. The two books have in common the writing talent of the late David Relin, the co-author of "Three Cups of Tea" and the author of "Second Suns."
Relin spent four years traveling with Tabin and Ruit as they expanded their efforts from the mountainous regions of Asia to sub-Saharan Africa. In the book’s acknowledgments, Relin cites 11 trips to destinations in Nepal, Tibet, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Bhutan, Australia and Utah. He trailed Tabin and Ruit at sophisticated medical facilities like the Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah where Tabin serves as director of the Division of International Ophthalmology, at Ruit’s Tilganga hospital in Kathmandu, and at an exotic array of makeshift mobile clinics in rural villages and remote military outposts.
Relin was captivated by the doctors’ ability to restore their patients’ eyesight almost overnight with a five-minute, low-cost operation. It was "emotionally overwhelming," he wrote.
Among the world’s blind and profoundly visually impaired, Relin explains, three in four could be cured if they had access to better medical care. And it is Tabin and Ruit’s intention to ensure they do.
But the book is more than a medical journal. Applying his keen powers of observation and commitment to furthering social causes, Relin recounts a tale of how two very different men — a rabble-rousing Ivy Leaguer and a stoic Nepali villager — came together to bring first-class medical care to the Third World.
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The author offers a rollicking recounting of Tabin’s exploits as a daredevil college student who couldn’t resist a challenge, whether it was climbing a previously uncharted face of Everest, jumping off the lip of a steep gorge attached to a prototype bungee cord, dodging traffic in Parley’s Canyon on Interstate 80, or, eventually, Tabin’s hyper-driven determination to level the playing field of medical care around the world.
contrast, the chapters about Ruit’s youth and his subsequent success as a highly regarded eye surgeon are more poignant. Relin tenderly describes his family’s hardscrabble life in the mountains of northeastern Nepal, the loss of two siblings to childhood diseases that would have been easily curable in a wealthier country, and his parents’ sacrifices to ensure their surviving child had a good education.
Relin paints a portrait of of Ruit as a brilliant surgeon whose goal is to empower his countrymen by establishing quality medical facilities and training local doctors.
According to Tabin, "Ruit is the genius behind everything we do. I am just the boy who gets to play because I bring the ball."
When they met in Nepal, Ruit had already pioneered a less intrusive, less expensive way to remove cataracts.
"He had the vision of how to bring down the cost, how to bring eye care to the poorest of the poor," said Tabin.
The two solidified their partnership while working shoulder to shoulder in Ruit’s newly built eye hospital in Kathmandu and in the hills above, where thousands of blind villagers lined up at their mobile clinics for the chance to see again.
The tale that Relin spins of their first encounter and subsequent travels beyond Nepal to Bhutan, and then Africa, are by turns amusing and heart-wrenching. It is clear that Relin admired his two outsized subjects.
That respect is mutual.
"It is not my story as told to him; it is through his eyes," said Tabin of Relin. "He got so involved in it and he was such an eloquent spokesman who really believed in our cause."
According to Tabin, Relin was so moved when an older woman, who had been a seamstress before going blind, regained her sight that he gave her money to buy a sewing machine. He also put several young students through school by paying their tuition, Tabin said.
Relin, however, will not have the chance to see his book in print. He died in November, shortly after turning in the final manuscript of "Second Suns."
Tabin suspects the controversy surrounding "Three Cups of Tea" devastated Relin, who he says "was a great journalist who took great pride in the integrity of his work."
Mortenson was accused of fabricating some of his adventures in Pakistan and allegedly misused some of the funds raised for his charity.
As a result, Tabin said, Random House intensively fact-checked "Second Suns," delaying its publication for more than a year.
Tabin, now 56, has settled down a bit. When he and Ruit are not setting up clinics or training up-and-coming ophthalmologists around the world, he practices at the Moran Eye Center in Salt Lake City and at the Redstone Health Center in Park City. He also volunteers at The People’s Health Clinic.
Tabin and his wife, Jean, live in Park City where their two children attend school at Treasure Mountain Junior High and Park City High School. His daughter Sara, who is taking an online course to be an ophthalmology assistant, will accompany him on his next medical trip to Nepal.
According to the inveterate adventurer, he couldn’t have found a better home — close to one of the top eye centers in the world that wholeheartedly supports his international efforts, and at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, where he can still ski and climb to his heart’s content.
"Second Suns: Two Doctors and their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives" by David Oliver Relin will be available at bookstores (including Dolly’s on Main Street in Park City) beginning June 18. For more information about Tabin and Ruit’s nonprofit organization, visit http://www.cureblindness.org
Ten percent of the proceeds from the sale of the book will support the organization.