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In 2007, Jeffrey Sachs, the Nobel laureate economist who has crusaded, along with Bono, to alleviate African poverty, asked Tabin what he could do for Africa’s blind. Sachs spearheads the UN-backed Millennium Villages Project, an attempt to transform living standards in 12 of the most impoverished communities across the continent. In the fall of 2008, Sachs presented Tabin with one of the more daunting medical challenges in modern history: survey the population surrounding each of the villages and cure all of the treatable blindness he finds. Tabin offered to go Sachs one better.

“I said, Let’s not just do an intervention,” Tabin recalls. “Let’s transfer our knowledge, train local people, and create centers of ophthalmic excellence that can change eye care in Africa.” And to demonstrate the results a few well-trained surgeons could achieve, Tabin proposed to hold the largest eye surgery camp in Africa’s history, in perhaps the place where blindness is most widespread on the continent, here in Ethiopia.

Little Miracle

Hunched over a surgical microscope, with his iPhone blasting Howlin’ Wolf through crummy speakers, Tabin works his 13th case of the day. The patient, Lam Lam Berhar, is a 55-year-old woman with large, milky cataracts obscuring both eyes. She also has a mild case of trachoma, an infection that can cause the eyelashes to turn inward and scar the cornea. Berhar has traveled a day on foot and 80 miles by bus from her village to be here today. She says her husband is also blind but they could only afford a single bus fare. Berhar’s vision has degraded to the point that she can make out only light and dark. I can see myself, reflected in the cataracts’ blank, blue-white surfaces as I lean over her to watch Tabin work.

I ask how quickly trachoma leads to blindness. “Not as fast as masturbation,” Tabin says, holding out his gloves for Sarita Paudel to rinse with a sterilizing solution.

With Paudel assisting, Tabin makes an incision in each of Berhar’s anesthetized eyes with a diamond blade he’s had built to his specifications. Delicately, he works each cataract-clouded lens out of the tunnel he’s constructed through several layers of the eye and flicks it into a bucket by his feet. Next he inserts a new synthetic lens in its place. The process takes ten minutes. “It’s the single most effective medical intervention on Earth,” Tabin says, “a little miracle. Tomorrow, she should see 20/20.”

Chansi drives the doctors hard the first day. They break once in the early afternoon to use the bathroom and swallow a protein bar each before tying their surgical masks back on. At 9 p.m., after 114 surgeries, Chansi pulls the plug. We all wedge into a Land Cruiser for the short drive to our hotel in Mekele. I wonder just how much energy Tabin will have left for the dancing he promised. He slumps sideways and begins to snore. At our grim hotel, we skip dinner and fall asleep in our reeking clothes.

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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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