Book review: ‘Second Suns’ by David Oliver Relin
May 2, 2014
When author David Oliver Relin, of "Three Cups of Tea" fame, traveled to Nepal with the intention of penning the story of the astonishing feats of the most accomplished Sherpa mountaineer, Apa Sherpa, little did he know that his decision to abandon that project would open the door to another story, one far removed from the hallowed heights of Mount Everest and its lauded conquerors. Admitting he was not up to the task of recording the details of the climber's extraordinary life, Relin flew back to Kathmandu, nursing his wounded pride. Starting out at the isolated and crude homes of the local population, he sensed the shift of focus and opened himself to the opportunity to tell the tale of a different side of Nepal.
Following up on a promise to Dr. Geoffrey Tabin, an energetic American mountaineer-doctor who has topped the renowned Seven Summits, Relin took his empty notebook with him to visit Dr. Sanduk Ruit, a Kathmandu-based ophthalmologist who, Tabin insisted, was changing the world, one cataract surgery at a time. Used to documenting the high-octane lives of extreme athletes like Apa Sherpa, Relin was stunned to witness a similar level of energy in Ruit and later in Tabin himself, two very different but equally dynamic and hard-core doctors who have committed their careers to changing the lives of those suffering from debilitating cataracts.
Nepal is a country with an unusually high concentration of people, both young and old, afflicted with cataracts, a condition that makes life nearly impossible in the treacherously mountainous and extremely impoverished nation. Those who suffer become burdens to their families and endure great hardship as a result.
On their first meeting, Relin was overwhelmed by Ruit's sheer presence; he was a larger-than-life individual, who exhibited a powerful dedication to his discipline. Relin learned of the many people he had been able to help over the several decades he had been performing these life-changing surgeries all over the remote regions of his home country of Nepal, plus beyond in Bhutan, China, North Korea and parts of Africa. Upon asking how many surgeries the doctor had personally performed in his career, and expecting an admirable answer in the hundreds, Relin was astounded to hear that more than 80,000 people have benefited from the surgeries.
"The scale of what Ruit had achieved and what he was attempting struck me then, for the first time," Relin wrote. "One man had already restored sight to the equivalent of a football stadium's worth of people."
Relin had found his story.
As Relin delved deeper into the life of this extraordinary man, he discovered an unlikely hero, a man raised up from the remotest region of Nepal to become one of the nation's most revered individuals. Sent away from his family at age 7 to attend school, Ruit struggled against homesickness, loneliness and the isolation dictated by his lower caste. The death of his beloved younger sister from tuberculosis moved him deeply, setting him on the path of medicine in his determination to give those like the members of his family a better fighting chance in the challenging climate and living conditions of Nepal.
Relin shifts the focus of his book from the life of Ruit and his astounding five minute surgeries to his partner, Tabin, another doctor of immense talent, commitment and energy, and the author's original contact on the subject. With an equally fascinating upbringing, and as intensely devoted to their shared venture, the Himalayan Cataract Project, Tabin has proved himself to be the balance to the intensity of Ruit's single-minded purpose. No project, no matter how committed the staff, can survive without the influx of funds, a task that Relin watched Tabin manage deftly, as he, with his gregarious personality, negotiated the circles of high-level donors and supporters far removed from the real work being done. Relin points out that Tabin's often awkward social parameters, as well as his unconventional approach to his career, contributed to his success as Ruit's partner, for neither man holds much stock in propriety and protocol.
The team's extraordinary success comes from its approach to solving problems, which involves simply stepping up and doing the hard work, side-stepping customary practices and avoiding the rules of the game that often do more to hinder the outcome of similar medical initiatives around the world. Willing to trek many miles over hazardous and unforgiving terrain to work for grueling hours in primitive conditions, the doctors knew that they needed similarly dedicated people to train in the field. It was this trial-by-fire approach that had the cream rising to the top, leaving them with new colleagues as committed to their project as they were.
The presence of certain people, like Tabin and Ruit, raises everyone up, inspiring work and a high level of dedication to a laudable and life-changing outcome greatly needed by so many desperate people. Relin himself was put to work and asked to carry loads and journey farther than he thought he could go, all because these two men stepped up and did the work themselves, leading by example.
"The immensity of our undertaking struck me. In an age when most doctors are unwilling to even make house calls, the team Ruit had assembled was carrying the contents of an entire hospital over a mountain range to reach his patients."
When Relin left behind his aspirations to document the life of one talented mountaineer, he need not have felt diminished. His story of Ruit and Tabin is powerful, moving and fascinating, and it shines a light on the success of their unique approach to caring for the most impoverished souls of the world, an approach we can only hope will be come a template for future endeavors.