Inside the unventilated halls of Quiha Hospital, we’re pressed close to patients being prepped for surgery. There are eight of us foreigners: six useful medical professionals and two journalists whose skills seem suddenly vague. Between the entryway and the operating room are three long corridors where Ethiopians in sweat-grimed white wool shawls are packed together on benches, clutching their dullowoch, long curved staffs they prop in front of their sightless eyes like question marks. “God!” says Ann Bagley, an ophthalmic researcher from Salt Lake City, cupping her hand over her nose and stumbling forward, “It smells like beef jerky.” It can’t be more than a hundred yards from the door to the OR, but negotiating this gauntlet, trying not to step on bare, calloused feet, skirting assorted open wounds, inhaling the very essence of poverty while staring into all those blind eyes, is one of the longest walks I’ve ever taken.
In a large utility closet transformed into a makeshift changing room, Tabin has already pulled on scrubs when the rest of us arrive. His wedding ring hangs around his neck on a scarlet cord that has been blessed by the Dalai Lama. Together Tabin; his colleague at Moran, Alan Crandall; Alan’s wife, Julie, an ophthalmic technician; and Alan’s sister Ann have to summon the optimism to believe they’re able to help every member of the crowd outside the door.
They’re also tasked with training a dozen Ethiopian technicians, nurses, and Tilahun Kiros, one of only two ophthalmologists available to the five million residents of Ethiopia’s far north. Fortunately they’ve brought two secret weapons: Sarita Paudel, a veteran surgical nurse from the Tilganga Eye Centre, the facility Ruit founded in Kathmandu, and Bal Sunder Chansi, Tilganga’s clean-cut and driven director of training. It’s Chansi who will be in charge, determining how many surgeries to do a day and deciding when the doctors are too exhausted to continue. I ask Chansi if it’s possible to cure 800 patients in five days. He responds with the subcontinent’s most distinctive gesture, the head waggle, which confirms that he’s heard my question but is too wise to offer a definitive answer. “All we can do is try,” Chansi says, tying on a mask.
Sustained effort has never been in short supply among members of the Tabin family. Geoff’s father, Julius, was a protégé of Enrico Fermi on the Manhattan Project. With Fermi, Julius Tabin left the University of Chicago for Los Alamos, where the two physicists built a rope tow so they could ski and clear their heads between marathon sessions in the lab. After the detonation of the atomic bomb they helped create, Julius volunteered to be the first person to survey the blast site, knowing it might be a suicide mission. He absorbed so much radiation collecting soil samples that doctors told him he’d never have children. Nine years on, Julius and his wife, Johanna, had Cliff, currently chair of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. Two years later, a solidly built bundle named Geoff emerged in a leafy Chicago suburb, proving the doctors’ prognosis incorrect twice over.