Professor Geoff Tabin on the joy of giving people back their lost sight
Geoff Tabin lives life at an altitude. “Impossible dreams drive you to notch up that extra bit,” says the man with a medical degree from Harvard and a philosophy degree from Oxford. He is on a mission -- to eradicate treatable and preventable blindness everywhere on Earth.
This internationally reputed ophthalmologist was in Madurai for a weekend workshop on cataract at Aravind Eye Hospital. But Tabin is also renowned as a mountaineer, and tells tales of his adventures from the heights of Tibet and Nepal to the dusty plateaus of Ethiopia.
From childhood he ate up every adventure that came his way, from mountain climbing to bungee-jumping. He was never a competitive climber, he says, but at the age of 55 he has etched himself in the history of conquering peaks. Tabin is the fourth person in the world to have scaled the seven highest peaks in each continent, the last of his Seven Summits being Mount Elbrus in Russia in 1990.
National Geographic put him on its cover in 2009 and declared him “Adventurer of The Year”. An unusual spot for an ophthalmologist! But for Tabin who feels the topographic map of Mount Everest resembles a cornea, blending medicine with adventure is not difficult.
After high school, when he received the Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships, he postponed going to medical school by two years. “I chose Philosophy at Oxford because it gave me the freedom to go on trips every two months. I could explore the wilderness and add to my travelling resume.”
Having been accepted at Harvard Medical School, Tabin set off to conquer the Himalayas. He mailed a postcard from the base camp requesting Harvard to hold his seat. “On return I found myself struck off the rolls. And a phone call changed it all.”
Tabin cannot forget what ophthalmologist Dr. Michael Weidman told him. “You are an idiot. Harvard will never grant leave of absence. Someone with half the intelligence to get in here should know that if you apply to do research, they will give you money and credit.”
Tabin smelled the opportunity and applied for a research grant. The school agreed to pay for his trip to Everest if he studied the effects of high altitude on the eye. He returned to the peak twice during the next five years.
Geoff Tabin became the first person to ascend the last unclimbed face of Everest in 1983 after renowned British mountaineer George Mallory died in the 1924 expedition to scale the Everest from the eastern side. In 1988 Tabin scaled the peak again from north-eastern face.
“During these expeditions I had more than my share of close-to-death moments. It taught me to enjoy every moment of life and take on challenges too,” he says.
When he was offered a fellowship in corneal surgery at Melbourne University in Australia, with ophthalmologist Hugh Taylor, he grabbed it. “I was in love with Nepal and my training was to be there with Dr. Sanduk Ruit. I thought if it doesn’t work out, I can at least sneak away to the mountains!”
Meeting Dr. Ruit, the founder of Tilganga Eye Centre, Kathmandu, changed his life. “Working with Dr. Ruit, I found my passion in medicine. He would operate 12 hours a day performing close to 100 surgeries and freeing people from the hell of darkness,” says Tabin. “I realised this was my calling.”
Together they formed the Himalayan Cataract Project and turned it into a model organisation, conducting high-volume surgical camps and training local doctors in advanced procedures.
“I believe you can make things happen,” says Tabin, who with Dr. Ruit in the last 17 years has helped restore sight to more than 800,000 people in Nepal, Tibet, Pakistan, India, Bhutan, China, Thailand, Vietnam, and North Korea. “The joyous expression on the faces of patients is so pure. Their smiles are contagious and you know you have done your part by making them a productive part of society again.”
“Remaining focussed and constant self-improvement takes you closer to your goals,” he says, “and I am trying to push my medicine to new limits.” All-night surgery schedules don’t bother him.
Tabin is more worried about refractive error, cataract and glaucoma, the three leading causes of blindness in developing countries where more people die with blindness without seeing an eye doctor.
When not travelling overseas for surgeries, Tabin is found at the John A. Moran Eye Center, University of Utah, where he works as the Professor of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and Director of the Division of International Ophthalmology. “I feel as excited about the first surgery of the day as I do about the last,” he says. “This is the only way to give high quality care.”