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On our sixth day, I work beside Tabin from dawn to dusk. I manage flow, taking care to always have someone prepped at the end of his operating table so I can slide them into place the moment I finish bandaging the previous patient. Mohari makes frequent deliveries of his strong medicine. And we find an agreeable rhythm that speeds the surgeries along, accompanied by Tabin’s iPhone playing loud electric blues. Just after 10 p.m. I drip antibiotic drops into the eyes of Tabin’s last patient, a frail, emaciated woman who is far too easy to lift onto the table. When he’s done, I press surgical tape over a gauze patch, smoothing it to the woman’s forehead and cheekbone. Tabin and I both note the number I write on her taped forehead with green marker: 82. She is Tabin’s 82nd patient that day, a record for the trip. He pulls his gloves off, tilts his head back toward the screened window, and trilling his tongue in imitation of his patients, ululates. To me, his warbling cry sounds like someone being electrocuted. But the Ethiopians recognize it for what it is—wild delight. And across the hospital compound, we hear its gentle musical echo rise from women resting on reed mats in recovery rooms, drowsing on benches beneath homespun blankets, or curled under thornbushes with their families. “Yes. We’re in agreement,” the echo seems to say. “What’s happening here is cause for celebration.”

By the middle of the eighth day, my visions of wine, comfort, and red-rock wilderness have faded like a fever dream. We’ve all become cogs in a machine making a difference. The compound empties out. Buses and carts carry patients away. People who’d arrived clutching blindly at the hem of a relative’s clothing walk confidently, without assistance, toward their homes. By early afternoon I bandage patient number 907. With a shock I realize no one else is waiting. We’ll all be leaving soon too. Most of us will return to our own countries, to sleep as much as our families will allow while we nurse our various minor ailments.

But not Geoff Tabin. He’s feeling “fantastic” again and has scheduled a morning tennis match with one of Ethiopia’s top players upon our return to Addis. After that, he’ll head to San Francisco to meet with the Dalai Lama, who will present him with the 2009 Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award. Then two weeks later, after a precious few days with his family in Utah, Tabin will get back in his eternal coach class seat and travel to Nigeria, where he’ll lead another high-volume surgical camp.

But that’s all in the future. For now there is only the Quiha Zonal Hospital, and this lesson: Somehow the overwhelming need of the crowd outside the door makes some people, certain rare individuals like Tabin, not only stronger, but better. And as I walk our last patient outside into the blinding Ethiopian sunlight, I realize that we’ve all found hidden reserves in ourselves that Geoff Tabin knew about all along. And we’ve become better too.

David Oliver Relin is currently working on a new book, See How They Shine, about Tabin, Ruit, and the quest to cure preventable blindness. It will be published by Random House in the spring of 2011. For more information on the Himalayan Cataract Project, go to cureblindness.org.

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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…
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