Yaara Bou Melhem: I had heard a lot about the Nepalese eye surgeon Dr Sanduk Ruit. He is a figure of international acclaim who has made leaps and bounds in public health, particularly in developing countries. He has received countless accolades from around the world and is on a mission to eradicate curable blindness.
But all of this is on the public record. Little is known about Dr Ruit outside of his public life. I had the opportunity to spend time with the so-called God of Sight to see if he lived up to his reputation for a story to be broadcast on tonight’s Dateline.
“Yaara, come and look at this,” Ruit’s commanding voice pierced the hushed ambience of the operating room and interrupted the hum of machines in the background. I had been summoned. It was the tone of someone accustomed to teaching – and I was his newest pupil.
He was referring to someone’s eyeball, which he had nimbly sliced through with steady hands. As much as I wanted to look away, it was hard not to watch. Actually, it was fascinating. With the authority of someone who has demonstrated this more than a 100,000 times, Dr Ruit proceeded to show me with precision how he removes a cataract and inserts an artificial lens. He had just shown me a life-altering, small-incision surgery technique that restores a person’s sight within minutes.
Dr Ruit is just as authoritative outside the operating theatre and he instinctively became a fatherly figure to our team, as he is for many of his staff and pupils.
He was particularly concerned about our health. “You OK there, Yaara?” he said breathing heavily. His eyes followed his 23-year-old daughter, Serabla, passing him while he leaned on his walking stick for a moment to catch his breath. We were going up a particularly steep trail in northeast Nepal to a remote village where Ruit was going to hold a mobile eye surgery clinic for villagers. I was impressed the 59-year-old doctor was fit for the climb. But then, this was a man who was no stranger to trekking. He was born in the foothills of Nepal’s Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain.
We spent close to two weeks filming with Ruit and he gave us incredible access to his life. Nothing appeared off-limits – the sign of a man with nothing to hide. But we learnt from others who have known him for years that the level of care and access we were getting was unusual.
“He doesn’t do this often. He must like you guys,” Michael Amendolia said. The unassuming but extraordinary Australian photographer is a longtime friend of Dr Ruit’s. Over the past 20 years, Amendolia has captured some of the more iconic shots of the doctor in the field, most notably from his first trip with him to an eye camp in Mustang in 1992.
Amendolia met Ruit while accompanying world-renowned Australian ophthalmic surgeon Fred Hollows. Hollows, until his death in 1993, was Ruit’s longtime friend and mentor and supported him when Ruit was battling the international medical fraternity over his new small-incision cataract surgery technique. Together they raised funds to build the Tilganga Eye Centre and the Fred Hollows Intraocular Lens Laboratory.
Another of Ruit’s biggest supporters is the Pullahari Monastery, an hour outside Nepal’s capital Kathmandu and where I watched Ruit hold another remote eye camp. Dr Ruit was greatly inspired by the late H.E Jamgon Kongtrul III, who was committed to the welfare of the underprivileged.
“I think our teacher and Dr Ruit have the same vision and view because in Buddhism we always say: Love and compassion. Of course there are many doctors but not all have love and compassion,” Gen-Sec Tenzin Dorjee tells me as he shows me around the Pullahari Monastery grounds.
Also at the Pullahari Monastery, we meet Ethiopian, Indonesian, Thai, English, Burmese and even North Korean doctors who had all come to train under Dr Ruit.
While Dr Ruit’s small-incision cataract technique is becoming widely applied in Asia, he wants to make more of an impact in Africa.
“It will be extremely useful because Nepal and Ethiopia do have similar ocular problems,” said Ethiopian eye doctor and trainee Wossen Mulugeta. Her colleague Dr Alemu Kerie was also full of praise for Dr Ruit.
“Dr Ruit is probably one of the best models of ophthalmic surgeons in the world. He’s the model for many young ophthalmologists and he is a very good and talented mentor for many of us.”
This is where Dr Ruit feels he can make the biggest impact – by training other young doctors from developing countries to tackle the scourge of curable blindness.
“By empowering the local people, it works not just in a few cases, it works in millions of cases. I’m so excited at the good it’s producing,” Ruit says.
The doctor is a man as generous with his knowledge as he is with his time. His wife Nanda, a former ophthalmic nurse, prepared for us an elaborate and delicious lunch. Ruit credits her with ‘steering the home ship’.
“The most important event [in my life] was meeting my wife. She’s been really a part of my work, looking after me, looking after my family while I’ve been in different parts of the world. I don’t think I could’ve done a lot without her. So I think family is very important.”
While Ruit stresses that family time is important above all, his international schedule leaves him little time at home so his family often accompanies him to his remote camps. His daughter, Serabla, was with us in the Bamti eye camp. While she is waiting to start her MBA, her brother and sister are studying to become doctors. Ruit admits he might have inspired them but says he had nothing to do with their decision.
“The first thing that I told my children was, ‘don’t become doctors’,” he said to us over lunch. “Isn’t that right Sera?”
But there are a lot of demands on the doctor for his time. When we visited him at the Tilganga Eye Centre, Ruit was rushing from room to room, personally attending to all the patients. I interviewed him as he was performing basic eye checks, “something surely his associates could do?” I asked.
“No, these patients have come from very far away just to see me,” he said, looking at an elderly man’s eyes through the microscope.
Asked if he will ever stop, he said: “I think I will stop someday. My philosophy in life is do what you can now. And if you can make a difference in people’s lives, do it now. I really don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
But Ruit has made it difficult for himself to ever stop. Instead, he has made it his lifelong mission to eradicate curable blindness. It may be difficult to achieve in his lifetime, but passing on the know-how and the infrastructure to get there may be his greatest legacy.
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