Brought to you by the students of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine
Maggie Reid Schneider
Random House. 2013 415 pages ISBN: 978-1-4000-6925-5 Available June 18, 2013
David Oliver Relin is best known as the co-author of the 2006 bestseller, Three Cups of Tea. For his second effort, he returns to the realm of charitable work in Asia, but decides to work solo - perhaps wisely given the controversy that surrounded Tea. The result is Second Suns: Two Doctors and Their Amazing Quest to Restore Sight and Save Lives. Here, Relin brings his journalistic eye to the lives of two physicians, American Geoffrey Tabin and Nepali Sanduk Ruit, founders and directors of the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP). Together, this odd pair of ophthalmologists is making progress toward their ambitious goal of eradicating preventable blindness the world over.
Relin doesn’t shy away from a detailed back-story to shed light on the motivations of his subjects, and the book includes several chapters covering the early lives and education of Tabin and Ruit. Most compelling is the description of Ruit’s humble beginnings in a remote high-mountain village in Nepal including a dramatic weeks-long trek, mostly on foot, to a small Catholic boarding school in Darjeerling, where separated from his family at the age of 7, he began his formal education. Ruit’s story is a tale of focused diligence and determination, and it makes a fascinating contrast to Tabin’s impulsive adventure seeking. Tabin is a man who missed exams at Oxford to go on the world’s first bungee jumping expedition, and took a leave of absence from medical school to climb Everest – informing his school only with a postcard to the Dean sent from the airport.
The work of the HCP is impressive. The organization is responsible for founding a world-class ophthalmology hospital in Nepal, and working to develop other clinics and centers throughout Asia. Their factory, which produces low-cost intraocular lenses in Nepal and sells them to over 80 countries, makes sight-restoring surgery more affordable in the developing world. Most importantly, Ruit has developed an innovative, fast, minimally invasive, and maximally portable surgical technique for the treatment of cataracts. In a side-by side trial, his technique proved better than a modern western procedure, and Ruit has trained physicians from all over the world to perform it locally.
The local development, training programs, and affordable lens production are the smart sustainability efforts that allow the charity to survive in the long run, but it is the transformative impact of a scalpel in the hands of Tabin and Ruit that’s most captivating. Thankfully, Relin is able to bring the reader to surgical clinics all over the world: several in Nepal, and later in Rwanda and Ethiopia as the HCP expands to Africa. In all these places the story is similar: hundreds of poor people per day arrive blind – often socially isolated and a burden to their families - and then leave the next day sighted, uplifted, and overjoyed. Relin himself says “Witnessing such unmitigated joy never loses its power.” Indeed, the moments when patients remove bandages to see the world again, often for the first time in years, don’t get old, no matter how often they are repeated. It speaks to Relin’s narrative skill as much as to the impact of the HCP’s work that each individual story is elegant and inspiring.
It would, perhaps, be easy to deify Ruit, who has restored the sight to some eighty thousand blind people with his own hands, but Relin resists this temptation. Instead, he presents his subjects as completely as possible, not shying away from their flaws. Ruit is exacting and short-tempered, Tabin overextended and impulsive. Still, the incredible good that they are able to do seems to outshine any personal flaws. The relationship between these two, very different men is at the heart of much of what they are able to accomplish, and Relin achieves something exceptional by capturing it so eloquently.
In addition to telling the tale of the HCP, Relin gives us frequent glimpses into his own process as a writer. In fact, the first chapter begins with him on a research trip for another book; one which he ultimately decides is not to be. Fortunately, he meets Ruit on a side expedition, and Second Suns is begun. This author’s-eye view is interesting, and at times a little raw. Relin’s inclusion of himself in the story, detailing his personal journey of getting to know these men and their work, and struggling with how he fits in to their efforts, is revealing and lovely.
Overall, Second Suns is an exceptional and inspiring book-- a must read for anyone interested in ophthalmology or international health, and a great book for medical students. It will also appeal to general readers, although some may be put off by the occasionally graphic descriptions of eye surgery. This book is truly an accomplishment.
Tragically, David Oliver Relin committed suicide in late 2012. It is a shame that we will have no more from this talented writer, and that he won’t be here to enjoy the success of this remarkable book.
Disclosure: The author of this review received a free advanced reader copy of the book from Random House.
About the Author:
Maggie Reid Schneider is a professional nerd, currently working on her dissertation in Neuroscience. When she's not staring at pictures of brains in the lab, she spends her time playing ultimate frisbee and compulsively reading. God (and committee) willing, she will return to medical school next summer to join the class of 2016.
About the artwork:
This ink on paper screen print by first year student Claire Seguin was created from a photograph filtered digitally into different color sources.
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