Nonfiction

Shining a light on gift of sight

 

Superb surgeons have qualities that set them apart. In addition to the intelligence needed to practice good medicine, they possess dexterity, physical stamina and, equally important, supreme confidence in their skills and an insatiable desire to fix things. But few surgeons aspire to vanquish a disease from an entire region of the world. That was the dream of Sanduk Ruit, a brilliant Nepalese doctor born in one of his country’s poorest and most remote villages, who became a pioneering ophthalmologist, revolutionizing cataract surgery and creating a medical network to deliver the sight-restoring operation to blind people throughout the Himalayas and in other developing countries.

Watching Ruit carry out impeccable cataract extractions in a bare-bones clinic in rural Nepal was the experience that first made David Oliver Relin consider writing about him. “I’ve always loved watching any physical task performed flawlessly,” Relin notes. But Ruit’s determination to cure cataracts, the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness, on a massive scale convinced the co-author of Three Cups of Tea that he had to tell the surgeon’s story.

Ruit’s dogged personality and his remarkable accomplishments make Second Suns a compelling and inspiring book. Ruit’s mother lost three of her six children to treatable illnesses — diarrhea, fever, tuberculosis — and young Sanduk, sent away to boarding school in Darjeeling, India, at age 7, soon resolved to do his part to remedy the lack of health care that had led to his siblings’ deaths. “They died because resources the rest of the world had were not available to us,” he recalled. “I realized I had to become a doctor.”

As a foil to Ruit’s superhuman focus, Relin also traces the trajectory of his unconventional partner, Geoffrey Tabin, an American ophthalmologist who seems in the book’s early chapters like a caricature of a talented but overly privileged and self-centered young doctor. Athletic, hyperactive and risk-loving, Tabin repeatedly dropped out of Harvard Medical School and later left an orthopedics residency to join mountaineering expeditions, even abandoning medicine to spend a few years as a journalist and world-class climber. But while volunteering at a Himalayan clinic after summiting Mount Everest, Tabin witnessed a cataract operation and decided to become an ophthalmologist. Years later, fully trained, he arrived in Kathmandu to work with Ruit, who at first refused to take him seriously. “I chalked him up as just another one of those jokers,” Ruit recalled.

But Tabin was so inspired by Ruit’s surgical skill and altruism that he did whatever his mentor demanded, eventually becoming both an expert eye surgeon and the chief fundraiser and grant-getter for Ruit’s Himalayan Cataract Project. He also helped expand the program’s training of eye surgeons to serve other medically needy countries, including India, Ghana, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Second Suns portrays heroic health care delivered under harrowing conditions: Ruit and his teams carry their equipment on multi-day treks up steep mountain trails, sometimes hiking at night with flashlights or head lamps, to reach settlements where they typically spend several days operating on hundreds of villagers in makeshift surgical theaters. They worked throughout Nepal’s decade-long civil war, operating on government sympathizers and Maoist rebels alike.

In 1994, the year Ruit opened his eye hospital in Kathmandu, there were 24,000 cataract operations in Nepal. In 2007, there were 167,000, and the number of new cataracts diagnosed annually has declined sharply thanks to successful treatment of the country’s visually impaired residents. By his wife’s count, Ruit has performed more than 80,000 surgeries, and he and Tabin have trained hundreds of eye surgeons from other developing countries.

Relin’s earlier blockbuster, Three Cups of Tea, provoked controversy in 2011 when Greg Mortenson, his co-author and the book’s protagonist, was accused of having fabricated parts of the story of his exploits in Pakistan and Afghanistan and of having misused donations to the charity he had founded, the Central Asia Institute. A class action lawsuit accusing Mortenson, Relin and the book’s publisher of defrauding readers was dismissed last year, but Mortenson agreed to repay the charity more than $1 million.

Ruit’s and Tabin’s achievements appear to be well documented, and their dedication is impressive. Second Suns is about 20 percent too long, with too many repetitive descriptions. Relin took his own life last year, at age 49, a fact especially sad in view of the passionate, persuasive case he makes for one person’s ability to make a difference in the world. He compares Tabin’s personal transformation to the Buddhist image of a wave realizing it is part of the sea, not an independent being. “He was water, at one with this ocean of humanity who looked toward him and Ruit with such hope,” Relin writes. “He was here because he was needed. And now he needed to get to work.”

Susan Okie reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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