Sunday, March 21, 2010

Nepalese doc is ‘God of Sight’ to nation’s poor

AP Medical Writer

updated 11:26 a.m. ET, Sun., March. 21, 2010
HETAUDA, Nepal - Raj Kaliya Dhanuk sits on a wooden bench, barefoot, with a tattered sari covering thin arms as rough as bark. Thick clear tears bleed from her eyes, milky saucers that stare at nothing.

For nearly a year, cataracts have clouded out all sight from the 70-year-old grandmother's world. With no money, she assumed she'd die alone in darkness. But now she waits quietly outside the operating room for her turn to meet Nepal's God of Sight.

"I am desperate. If only I could see my family again," she whispers in her native tongue. "I feel so bad when I hear the baby cry because I can't help him. I want to pick him up."

Dhanuk and more than 500 others — most of whom have never seen a doctor before — have traveled for days by bicycle, motorbike, bus and even on their relatives' backs to reach Dr. Sanduk Ruit's mobile eye camp. Each hopes for the miracle promised in radio ads by the Nepalese master surgeon: He is able to poke, slice and pull the grape-like jelly masses out of an eye, then refill it with a tiny artificial lens, in about five minutes. Free of charge.

It's an assembly-line approach to curing blindness that's possible thanks to a simple surgical technique Ruit pioneered, allowing cataracts to be removed safely without stitches through two small incisions. Once condemned by the international medical community as unthinkable and reckless, this mass surgery "in the bush" started spreading from Nepal to poor countries worldwide nearly two decades ago.

Thousands of doctors — from North Korea to Nicaragua to Nigeria — have since been trained to train others, with the hope of slowly lessening the leading cause of blindness that affects 18 million people worldwide. And later this year, U.S. military surgeons will train under Ruit for the first time.

Ruit estimates sight has been restored to about 3 or 4 million people through his method. Most of them live in the developing world, where a loss of vision can be worse than death because of the added burden thrust on families already drowning in hardship. The soft-spoken portly doctor in acid-washed jeans and sneakers guesses he alone has removed 100,000 cataracts over his 30-year career.

"You realize there are drops which make an ocean," says Ruit, 55, an ethnic Sherpa who grew up poor in a remote mountain village on the border near Tibet. "They're such wonderful cases that make you fully convinced of the power of the work."

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"Dr. Ruit is as skilled as any cataract surgeon I know, and I suppose it is natural to wonder what he could earn with these same skills in an affluent country," says Chang.

Ruit admits life could have been much more comfortable if he'd simply left Nepal for a job in the West. But not many people have the opportunity he has had to make life better for others, he says.

"This is really too good for money," he says.

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