In Nepal, Doctors Cure Blindness Among Poor

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic Ultimate Explorer
September 26, 2003

This week on National Geographic Ultimate Explorer, host Lisa Ling visits Nepal with the eye specialists of the Himalayan Cataract Project. These dedicated doctors, and those they have trained, are restoring the gift of sight to tens of thousands who need it most. Miracle Doctors premieres Sunday, September 28, 2003, at 8 and 11 p.m. ET, 5 and 8 p.m. PT.

The World Health Organization estimates that 45 million people worldwide are blind; 90 percent of them are in developing nations. Many of these cases may be easily preventable or treatable. Nearly half could be helped by a procedure that's become routine in many nations—cataract surgery.

In Nepal, a tiny mountain kingdom that is home to Earth's highest mountain, Everest, a dedicated team of doctors is making remarkable progress in treating one of the world's highest rates of occurrence of cataract—and setting the example for many other developing countries.

Enter the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP), a group of dedicated physicians who have reopened the eyes of tens of thousands of Nepalis of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Nepal, where the HCP was born, has one of the highest rates of curable blindness anywhere in the world. "It's just accepted that when you get old the hair turns white, the eye turns white (because of cataracts), and then you die," said HCP co-director Geoffrey Tabin.

The reasons for the high cataract incidence are unclear, but may include genetics, intense UV sunlight exposure, malnutrition, or other factors. The effects are more apparent. "Without a family to take care of you, you die right away," Tabin explained. "But even with them you become a huge burden. So cataract surgery in that part of the world not only restores sight but really restores life."

A Single Operation Changes Many Lives

Tabin, an accomplished mountaineer, was returning from a 1988 expedition that put him on the summit of Mount Everest when he witnessed an operation that changed his life—and ultimately those of many others.

"I had started a residency in orthopedic surgery and I took time off to climb and also work as a general practitioner in Nepal," Tabin recalled.

"A Dutch team came in and performed cataract surgery and it absolutely blew me away. It was like a miracle. I got so fired up that when I came back to the States I told my girlfriend that I really wanted to do ophthalmology."

Back in Nepal several years later as ophthalmology resident, Tabin met his future Nepali partner, HCP co-director Sanduk Ruit. Ruit was already making a name for himself in the region by pioneering modern microscopic cataract surgery in Nepal, including the utilization of intraocular lenses (implanted in the eyeball).

Continued on Next Page >>


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