11-17 September 2015 #775

Helping the poor to see

Two doctors and their amazing quest to restore sight and save lives.
Kunda Dixit


Some lives are lived for the pursuit of happiness, a sense of fulfilment derived from serving others selflessly. One such person is Sanduk Ruit, Nepal’s world renowned doctor who decided to go into medicine after seeing his siblings die during childhood of easily-preventable infections in a remote corner of northeastern Nepal.

Ruit’s life is an inspiration for everyone everywhere, not just for fellow-Nepalis. But it is especially relevant at a time when it has become fashionable for us to be cynical, when Nepalis like to run down Nepal in order to justify moving abroad. Ruit’s life is proof that there is a lot left to be done here, and money can’t buy the sense of personal fulfilment one gets from helping fellow-Nepalis in need.

Friends had often told Ruit to write a memoir. But the man is too busy giving the gift of sight to thousands (and too modest) to sit down and write about himself. Which is why when David Oliver Relin (the author of the best-selling Three Cups of Tea) decided to do Ruit’s biography, he convinced Relin to also include his fellow-opthalmalogist, the American climber Geoffrey Tabin. The two doctors set up the Himalayan Cataract Project and have been working together to fight blindness across the world for the past two decades.

Relin actually came to Nepal in 2012 to climb and also work on a biography of Apa Sherpa, who at that time was getting ready to climb Mt Everest a record-breaking 20 times. But he was introduced to Ruit and was fascinated by the life of a Nepali doctor who worked his way up from a remote village to set up a world-class eye hospital in Kathmandu, and perfect a technique to bring down the cost of a cataract operation from $3,000 to $20. And even more surprising: perform those operations in field hospitals in the middle of nowhere.

Ruit and Tabin complement each other. The quiet, committed Nepali instils a sense of purpose on the often-wayward American. They fund-raise together and go around the world to help the poor to see. We trace the details of Ruit’s life from Olangchungola, to Kathmandu, on to India, and marvel at a dignified man with a quiet sense of destiny. We find out about the indisciplined Tabin who bunked medical school to climb mountains. We read about how their lives intersect and intertwine to make the world a better, brighter place. 

Second Suns

Two Doctors and their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives

by David Oliver Relin

Random House, 2013

Hardback, 415 pages

Cataract blindness and the artificial intra-ocular lens made in Nepal have now restored the eyesight of many around the world. It has saved the lives of people ready to commit suicide after going blind, mothers have seen their children for the first time, and one blind shepherd said after his operation, “I’m not only seeing the sun, I feel I am the sun.” A Nepali woman who had been blind all her life marvels at seeing snow mountains for the first time: “Do you see how they shine?”

As a Nepali, some of Relin’s descriptions of rural Nepal sound a bit naive and awe-struck, you get that sense of an expat reading too much into things that we take for granted. The book is linked to the tragedy of Relin’s own life. After allegations that he had fabricated parts of Three Cups of Tea, the journalist and writer was under medication for depression. He worked on Second Suns throughout this period, but committed suicide just before the book was released in June 2013.

The allegations against Relin hurt his credibility and also affected the sale of Second Suns. This is a pity because the story of the lives of Ruit and Tabin deserve wider dissemination so they can inspire more people around the world.

Kunda Dixit

Read also

New vision for Nepal, Stéphane Huët

Seeing is believing, Sahina Shrestha

The gift of sight, Rubeena Mahato

Eye health, Buddha Basnet

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