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The first patient dies that day. We hear his family wailing through the screened windows of the operating room. An elderly man scheduled to have surgery the following morning has had a heart attack and collapsed on a bench in the courtyard. The second dies soon after. The night before his surgery, a blind man in his 40s, who traveled 185 miles from a village near the Eritrean border, slips walking to a bathroom in the middle of the night. He hits his head on the concrete floor and bleeds to death before he’s discovered. “That’s horrible,” Tabin says, looking up from his operating table the fifth morning when he hears the news. But he sounds surprisingly matter-of-fact. When I ask him about it later, he says, “Blindness in a place like Ethiopia is often a death sentence. The life expectancy of blind people in the developing world is less than one-third that of people with sight.”

Only Chance

We all get sick. Ace Kvale, the photographer, has stomach trouble. So does Julie Crandall, but she swallows antibiotics and Imodium and stays by her husband’s side in the operating room. Chansi has a sore throat. Paudel is running a fever. Even Tabin, who typically barks “fan-tastic!” whenever anyone asks how he’s doing, admits he feels only “pretty average.” I’m coughing so frequently I pull a muscle in my chest. But we know our ailments are temporary. We can afford a plane ticket home to another world.

By 9 p.m. on the fifth evening the team has completed 699 surgeries, but more patients keep arriving. We had planned to head north the next morning, to an Italian-run ecolodge where the food and wine is reputed to be the best in Ethiopia. From there we were going to visit with patients that Tabin operated on last year in one of the Millennium Villages, Koraro, explore the nearby red-rock wilderness, and climb to churches hollowed out of stone pinnacles. Tabin breaks the news on the drive back to the hotel. “I’m going tostay here until we’re done,” he says. “This is their only chance to see.”

By the measure of my disappointment, I learn an uncomfortable truth. I’m overwhelmed by the heat and dust and suffering. I want to flee, to find a decent meal or a comfortable bed. But shamed by Tabin’s dedication, I stay. We all stay.

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  • Tabin is a hero. Climbing 7 Summits is impressive, but it doesn't change anyone's life. My hat's off…
  • CNN Hero of the Year 2010!
  • a man with great mission. thank you for what you have done in ethiopia.
  • I am speechless and in awe!!!I am a teacher and will share this fantastic article with the nursing s…
  • This is what America is all about. Dr. Tabin left made me a proud American. Kudos, to his wife and…
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