Miracle Doctor

On a fairly typical recent Friday afternoon, sitting down with Dr. Geoff Tabin in his small University Health Complex office requires slaloming through an obstacle course of large cardboard boxes containing donated intraocular lenses.

“These are going to Nepal,” Tabin says.

Tabin is an ophthalmologist, associate professor of surgery and the co-director of the Himalayan Cataract Project, a 9-year-old group that provides medical care and, increasingly, doctor training in an impoverished region with a staggeringly high incidence of cataracts. The group’s work is the subject of a National Geographic Ultimate Explorer documentary, “Miracle Doctors,” that will air on Oct. 4 at 8 p.m. on the MSNBC cable channel.

To find most dramatic footage possible, the National Geographic crew trekked with Tabin and his cataract project colleagues for a week through the Upper Mustang region of Nepal to a tiny, remote village where residents have little or no access to medical care. The cataracts that patients struggle with there are almost unrecognizable to views from the developed world: they are huge, milky, inexorably growing things that choke off all vision. With a relatively simple procedure in a field hospital, these totally blind people can once again see.

“It really is a kind of miracle,” Tabin says. “You’re taking a person who is totally blind, and then they can see. The producers needed a blurb for the TV Guide, and he called back to New York on a satellite phone and said, ‘I’ve just been watching miracles.'”

Setting up a field surgery camp in such a far-flung location – and not to mention locating and bringing in blind patients, many who trekked for days carried by their families – was a huge effort, one that needed to be repeated twice over three years because of the vagaries of television production.

Tabin says the effort was worth it: “My hopes for this are, as always, big. I’m hoping this will help attract a significant amount of funding to expand our hospital in Kathmandu.”

As the cataract project has grown over the years, it now devotes much of its effort to building an infrastructure for eye care in the region. It does this by training surgeons, nurses and ophthalmologic assistants who work through the entire region. Instead of just dropping in foreign specialists to provide care, the group is building facilities and training locals to staff them. Tabin finds this work nerve-wracking at times (teaching surgery, he says, is far more stressful than performing it), but ultimately deeply rewarding.

“It’s a thrill to see a doctor you work with develop. One year, they’re telling you, ‘Last year I was making 609 surgeries, sir’, and then the next year you come back and it’s 1,740 surgeries. It’s great watching a physician who three years before was mediocre, and is now absolutely superb.”

-UVM News