You may have viewed the brief segment, "Gift of Sight," on ABC World News or the extended segment later on Nightline , in which an American doctor is restoring sight by performing cataract surgery to people living in a remote Ethiopian village. However, what you didn't see is just as fascinating and miraculous. The behind the scenes story of international cooperation is incredible.
This story starts in 2008, when Dr. Geoffrey Tabin met with American economist Jeffery Sachs. Sachs is the director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet professor of health policy and , management at Columbia University. He is perhaps best known for his role as special advisor to the United Nations secretary on the Millennium Development Goals. These Millennium Development Goals address public health issues on a global level.
Jeffery Sachs asked Dr. Tabin to provide a comprehensive assessment of world eye health. Dr. Tabin agreed not only to provide an assessment in places, like rural African villages, but to treat whenever possible, the people. Dr. Tabin found that there was a backlog of patients waiting to be cured of treatable blindness. In these villages, he noticed that often when one's hair color turned white, one's eyes also were white. In other words, the people had cataracts. These cataracts were often treatable and preventable.
Dr. Tabin is co-founder of the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP) where he closely works with the HCP's director, Job Heintz. Heintz, an attorney, says the number one goal of HCP is finding local people to do the work within their community. This means local citizens are the ones providing and sustaining eye care. One of these citizens who Dr. Tabin met in Ethiopia is Dr. Tilahun Kiros. As part of the Millennium project, Dr. Tabin built a professional and working relationship with Dr. Kiros.
Job Heintz describes Dr. Kiros as an amazing doctor. When Dr. Kiros was living in Ethiopia, he recognized that he needed additional ophthalmology training, and knew that a place in China could provide it. He taught himself Chinese, and then enrolled in a Chinese ophthalmology program. He was able to perform cataract surgery with tools he fashioned himself, but Dr. Tabin wanted Dr. Kiros and a local nurse to receive additional training in Nepal.
Nepal is the HCP's flagship eye care center. It is here where Dr. Kiros learned how to perform high-quality, high-volume cataract surgery in a hospital as well as a non-hospital setting. An example of a non-hospital setting is a retro school house without electricity. Heintz says Dr. Kiros and others see that the medical procedures taught in Nepal can be duplicated in their local village. Heintz explains, "If you can do it (cataract surgery) in one of the poorest countries in the world, then you can do it in anywhere. In 10 minutes time, cataract surgery can be done at very low cost."
There is a tremendous amount of energy and effort that goes into setting up an eye care center. There needs to be a team of educated local doctors and nurses, as well as modern equipment. A well-trained staff and proper supplies, such as lenses and antibiotics, are necessary to lay a solid foundation. This foundation is required to maintain a high-quality environment.
The local staff is critical as they are the ones, who before the doctor arrives, go to the villages and seek out the patients. The staff also organizes the place where the cataract surgery occurs. Often these places are primitive in nature. If there is no electricity, this means the staff must, for sanitary purposes, find portable gas stoves, generators or pressure cookers. Post op care is also handled with dilligence. Patients are given anti-inflammatory drugs, along with antibiotics, and the directions are spoken in their language. Heintz is quick to emphasize that the eye care clinics focus on quality service. He says, "People understand quality regardless of the money in their pocket."
Dr. Tabin works closely with Dr. Sanduk Ruit. Together they have performed 500,000 cataract surgeries. Dr. Tabin says that treatable and preventable blindness is crucial to maintain a high quality of life. He says that there are 18 million people who, because of vision problems, have difficulty completing simple acts of daily living. He explains, "The life expectancy for a person in the developing world is reduced by two-thirds when they lose their sight."
It is this gift of sight that ABC World News weekend anchor and co-anchor of 20/20 David Muir documented. He captured Dr. Tabin giving sight to nearly 900 people in a remote Ethiopian village. The doctor performed the cataract surgery in just seven minutes, and it cost just $11. It was extremely moving to see sight restored to an eight-year-old boy who was blind in both eyes.
Viewers were equally moved by this extraordinary act that Dr. Tabin and his medical team performed. The team at ABC set up a direct link, so viewers could make a donation to the cataract project. After ABC aired the first segment, within 24 hours, people donated $139,186 to the project. Muir reflects,
I'll never forget the moment those patches came off... the patients' stunned silence followed by the ululating, their sounds of joy. Dr. Tabin is truly changing lives and the generosity of our viewers was extraordinary.
To view the entire episode of ABC's story click here.
To learn more about the Himalayan Cataract Project and to make a donation you can click here