Skywalker: Eye doc climbs Everest, expands advocacy
October 7, 2008
"An eye is not an eye," ophthalmologist and Park City resident Geoff Tabin said Monday evening. "An eye is a life."
Tabin knows the importance of clear vision. He and his partner, Dr. Sanduk Ruit, have spent much of their adult lives treating cataract patients in remote places in Nepal, northern India, Bhutan and Tibet as part of the Himalayan Cataract Project.
Cataract surgery is routine in the United States, but the procedure is rare, if not unheard of, in the developing world. Most of the cataract patients Tabin treats at the Moran Eye Center in Salt Lake City come to him with mild cases. They complain of trouble driving at night or seeing in the rain.
Cases in the Himalayas, though, often advance far enough to cloud the entire lens of the eye until total blindness sets in. Cataracts occur naturally with age but are sped along with poor nutrition and abundant exposure to ultraviolet radiation that leaves some of Tabin’s patients in the developing world without sight by their mid-30s. Loss of vision means isolation and decreased life expectancy for victims who have never received a doctor’s visit in their lives. "In some places, it was just accepted that your hair turns white, your eyes turn white and you die," Tabin explained.
But because of a miraculous surgery common in the Western world, Tabin can correct decades of blindness within moments.
It’s something he has been doing every year since he met Ruit in 1993 and was inspired to help his colleague, who was trained in India but decided to return home to Nepal to help educate doctors and treat preventable blindness.
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The two set up "eye camps" in towns such as Kagbeni in the Mustang region of Nepal, an area that can only be reached with a 14-mile trek that includes thousands of feet of vertical ascent. Officials in the town, where the only mode of communication is word of mouth, set up massive pre-screening triages so the doctors treat as many of those in need as possible. The cost per surgery is just $20, Tabin said.
The major focus of the Himalayan Cataract Project is not just treatment, but education. Tabin and Ruit train doctors to perform the cataract surgery themselves and teach them about other eye diseases.
The teach-a-man-to-fish approach has yielded incredible results. In 2007, the nonprofit group, and its partner in Nepal, the Tilganga Eye Center, screened more than 200,000 patients in the Himalayan region and provided more than 12,000 sight-giving surgeries to some of the poorest people in the world. That brings the total number of patients screened since 1994 to nearly 1.5 million and the total number of surgery performed to more than 75,000, according to literature Tabin provided.
For his work, the doctor is the 2008 recipent of the American Academy of Ophthalmology’s Humanitarian Award and the Dali Lama’s Compassion Award.
In the months ahead, Tabin and Ruit plan to expand their operation to treat patients and train doctors in Sub-Saharan Africa. Already trips to Uganda, Ethiopia and Ghana have been planned. Nigeria, Rwanda and Kenya will be next. "For me and my partner, it’s about taking on a big challenge and we don’t know if we can do it," he said, adding, "You have to maximize the way you live every day and try to make a positive contribution."
An intrepid explorer
Tabin spent his undergraduate years at Yale and earned a masters degree in philosophy at Oxford University on a Marshall Scholarship. Interested in health care, he decided to attend Harvard for medical school.
Then a climber decided to pull out of an Everest climb, a daring east-face ascent, for which Tabin was an alternate. There was no time to alert the medical school that he would miss the start of classes, so he sent a postcard. When he arrived in Cambridge, having been part of the first American team to attempt the east side of the tallest mountain in the world, he found out that he had been kicked out.
Only after a review by Harvard Medical School’s faculty was Tabin readmitted. "They said there were ways of doing things," he said. "And sending a postcard wasn’t one of them."
He received his medical degree in 1985.
Tabin says he was the first person to summit the highest peaks on seven continents and, in 1988, he became the first ophthalmologist to summit Mount Everest. "The way you get known in the climbing world is by doing things other people haven’t done before," he explained.
After he summitted Everest in 1988, Tabin watched doctors perform a cataract surgery on a woman who had been blind for three years, according to Tabin’s Web site, cureblindness.org. "Cataract surgery is one of the true miracles of medicine," he said. The numbers are staggering with a backlog of hundreds of thousands of patients who would benefit from this life-changing surgery and too few trained surgeons to meet the need. Tabin said that 22 million people have cataracts that have rendered them totally blind. Nepal has about one ophthalmologist per 250,000 people. The U.S. has more than ten times as many eye doctors. He said of the American health care system, "We are so lucky. We have the best crisis-intervention program in the world. When something goes wrong, be it a cataract or pancreatic cancer, this is the place to be."
Other places are not so lucky.
Tabin is scheduled to speak Tuesday, Oct. 14 at the Jim Santy Auditorium, 1255 Park Ave. Admission is free. He will also be screening a 2007 film called "Light of the Himalaya" in which Tabin joins other professional climbers as they attempt to climb a 21-thousand foot mountain.