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Global Visionary - Geoff Tabin, MD

Mountains have never daunted Dr. Geoff Tabin. He is one of only four people in the world to have climbed the highest peaks on all seven continents.  It was during one particular expedition that Dr. Tabin discovered his highest challenge yet: conquering the worldwide epidemic of curable blindness.

To meet this challenge, he joined Sanduk Ruit, MD, a Nepalese ophthalmologist, in founding the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP).  HCP has provided cataract surgery to rural, impoverished cataract patients for less than $20, trained numerous local doctors, and has helped hundreds of thousands of patients.

Dr. Tabin had always wanted to work in a developing country.  As a general doctor, he was able to make contributions to individual patients, but it always frustrated him that the big issues, poverty, poor water supply, infectious diseases, were things on which an individual doctor can have little impact.

During a climbing expedition on Mt. Everest, Dr. Tabin, witnessed a cataract surgery performed on a woman who had been needlessly blind for three years.  After the surgery, the woman “just blossomed back to life.” He then realized the power of cataract surgery, of restoring vision, to transform lives.  He knew then that he wanted to become an ophthalmologist.

“It was just the most unbelievable mind-blowing miracle,” remembers Dr. Tabin. “From totally blind, then you do a surgery, and they are restored to life.”

After training at Brown University and a corneal surgery fellowship in Melbourne, Australia, he traveled to Nepal where he met Dr. Sanduk Ruit.  Dr. Ruit was a Nepali eye surgeon who pioneered an inexpensive, small-incision cataract surgery that could be practiced in the most remote, impoverished countries.

“Worldwide, there are 18 million people that cannot see the shadow of a hand moving in front of their face,” explained Dr. Tabin.  “In Nepal, about 80% of the blindness is due to cataracts, which is completely treatable.”

Together, Dr. Tabin and Dr. Ruit founded the Himalayan Cataract Project (HPC) which operates a unique skills-transfer program for ophthalmic teams.  HCP also holds high-volume, remote region cataract surgery camps providing training to dozens of local doctors while providing surgery to thousands of rural patients.  Dissatisfied with the prohibitively high cost of intraocular lenses (IOL), a necessity for modern cataract surgery, HCP also opened a factory in Nepal to produce high quality IOLs for a fraction of the cost.  Instead of over $200 per IOL, they could produce them for less than $5 each.

In 2010, National Geographic featured Dr. Tabin on their cover as “Adventurer of the Year” both for his philanthropic efforts, as well as his extreme sports and mountain climbing achievements.  This past June, the book “Second Suns,” written by “Three Cups of Tea” author David Oliver Relin, was published highlighting the extraordinary efforts of Drs. Tabin and Ruit.

Since the inception of HCP in 1994, more than 100 doctors have been trained in modern cataract surgery and more than 100 ophthalmic assistants and nurses have been trained.

“Our program is not really about me going over and doing cataract surgery,” said Dr. Tabin, “but about empowering local citizens.  It’s creating infrastructures, as well as training the doctors, but also training nurses, technicians, assistants, and creating a system.”

When they started, the amount of cataract surgeries being done in Nepal was miniscule-about 15,000 cataract surgeries per year in the whole country and most of it was low-quality.  By 2009, the Nepali doctors were performing over 200,000 cataract surgeries a year.

“My whole life I’ve enjoyed trying new things and pushing myself,” said Dr. Tabin.  “Our society is kind of built around risk aversion, but it’s impossible to really throw yourself at something fully if you are not willing to fail.  We started out just teaching one doctor at a time to do good cataract surgery.  It’s been a little bit of luck and a little bit of serendipity.”

To Dr. Tabin, ending blindness and restoring lives is the highest calling imaginable—and the climb of a lifetime.

Find out how you can become a Global Visionary and support international ophthalmology outreach
Recently, Dr. Tabin visited Ohio State for the launch of the Global Outreach Project.  Here is a video of him sharing his amazing story: