It has been almost twenty years since I have visited the hospital four times in one week. But the majority of my last seven days were spent in the confines of a dark room with my eyes closed. Clearly not the way that I like “to mountain.”
I awoke Monday morning more or less blind. I was able to discern that there was a person standing two feet from me, but could not distinguish eyes or a mouth, making their head appear indistinct and faceless, which is equal parts disconcerting and frightening. My vision alone called for a trip to the hospital, but the bright red color of my sclera (white of the eye) in addition to the shots of pain in my cornea increased the sense of urgency. Reminiscent of something from a horror film – doubled up in discomfort with freakish looking, vampire eyes – the ER doctor took a quick assessment and alerted the on-call ophthalmologist.
There are few moments in life when you encounter a true hero. This was one of those moments for me. Although I could not see him, due in part to the fact that I requested the lights be turned off in the hospital room because of my acute light sensitivity, when Dr. Geoff Tabin arrived I instantly felt that I was in good hands. In the most gentle of ways, he told me I was very sick but would surely recover.
I was diagnosed with severe adenoviral keratoconjunctivitis. And as Dr. Tabin put it, I was going to suffer a bit for the next few days. He added that it would temporarily feel like someone was constantly sticking my eye with a pin, but that that feeling was normal. Steroid drops and pain killers in hand, I was instructed to keep my eyes closed.
For the next four days I was quarantined to my room due to the highly contagious nature of this virus. Sitting in darkness allows for a great deal of introspection. I had ample time to ponder many topics, but the one that came to mind over an over again was the amazing Dr. Tabin. You see, he was not only my personal medical hero, Geoff Tabin has impacted hundreds of thousands of lives across the globe thanks to his mission to eradicate curable blindness.
According to an article in the December 2009 issue of National Geographic Adventure Magazine (on which Geoff graces the cover), 80% of the 150 million blind people in developing countries do not need to be. As Co-director of the Himalayan Cataract Project, Dr. Tabin saves people in and around Nepal from what they call the “white death.” So far the Himalayan Cataract Project has restored sight to 500,000 people in the countries neighboring the Himalayas. He and co-founder Dr. Sanduk Ruit have also expanded the project to sites in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In what many would deem impossible conditions, Dr. Tabin and his team create a safe, sterile operating environment so that they can perform a 6 to 7 minute surgery that gives that person their life back. Capable of up to 80 operations in a single day, Dr. Tabin is giving whole villages a new future that is brighter in every way.
Director of the Division of International Ophthalmology at the John A. Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah, where I went for my check-ups after my stint in the ER , Dr. Tabin spends a considerable part of the year working abroad helping teach local doctors basic vision care.
Besides his accolades as a humanitarian (did I mention he was named an “unsung hero of compassion” at a ceremony with the Dalai Lama), Dr. Tabin is also a world-renowned climber. He was the fourth person to summit the highest peak on all seven continents. Folks, if you’re not impressed, you should be. That accomplishment is a big freakin’ deal! It was actually his obsession with climbing that led him to his current profession. During an expedition on Everest, Geoff came across a group of Dutch ophthalmologists that were performing what is now his life’s work.
In his book, Blind Corners, the foreward is written by Sir Edmund Hillary. Yes, the same Edmund Hillary that was the first man to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Clearly, Geoff is among the highest echelon of climbing elite.
A big deal in multiple circles, even if you aren’t suffering from a severe eye virus, you would never know it when you meet him. A more than accomplished climber and medical pioneer, he has absolutely no ego, just an enthusiasm and warmth that cannot be taught.
Dr. Tabin gave me a copy of his book and inside the cover wrote: To Kaylin, a kindred spirit. It was the nicest compliment he could have paid me. Geoff Tabin has lived an extraordinary life, expertly weaving together his life’s passion with his life’s purpose. His path is an inspiration and an example of how you can fully reach your potential.
I do not know what the next twenty years are going to look like or what my legacy will be. But I do hope that I can contribute positively with direction, compassion, and humor, much like Dr. Tabin has. As my eyes continue to heal the world still appears blurry. Even as I type I have to squint to make sure of what I write. However, through this ordeal I feel that I am seeing clearer than ever.