Ruit is known for pioneering the technique of small incision low-cost cataract surgery which he has used to restore the sight of more than 120,000 people so far in Nepal, China, North Korea, Ethiopia and other countries. He has won many accolades including the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2006, and last year one of India’s highest civilian honours, the Padma Shri.
As he interacts with patients in Kathmandu, he shows extraordinary kindness and humility for a doctor so famous. Ruit tells Gripper that he learned early in his career that giving back eyesight to people meant giving them back their life. Ruit’s life is not without personal tragedies, and the book is full of heartfelt moments. But it is as much about progress in eye care in Nepal as it is about Ruit himself.
“Curing blindness is Nepal’s great success story,” said Ruit, who established the Tilganga Institute of Opthalmology in Kathmandu in 1994. At that time the prevalence of blindness in Nepal was 0.8%, with cataract the major cause. Today, blindness is down to 0.3%, despite the population having doubled, and Ruit is operating much earlier with improved surgery on contracts.
The world-class eye centre is also a training ground for young surgeons from around the world. Tilganga runs on the social entrepreneurship model with a sliding scale payment system where those who can afford treatment pay more than the less privileged.
“Instead of investing time and money on mega projects, we should focus on developing small, self-sustaining grassroot independent community hospitals with qualified staff, and that is the most important thing we have achieved in eye care in Nepal,” said Ruit, who has opened eye centres in all 77 districts, with community eye hospitals based on the Tilgaganga model in Hetauda, Biratnagar, Dhangadi, Nepalganj and Lumbini.
The Barefoot Surgeon is being translated into Nepali by FinePrint, but it is not the first book about Ruit. Second Suns by David Oliver Relin, who also wrote Three Cups of Tea, was about Ruit and Tabin’s quest to restore sight to the world’s poorest. But following an allegation of plagiarism in an earlier work, Relin committed suicide in 2013 right after handing over the manuscript of the Second Suns.
Read also: Helping the poor to see, Kunda Dixit
For the new book, Gripper followed Ruit’s surgery team for more than three years in India, Bhutan and Burma. In Nepal she joined Ruit’s eye camps in Trisuli, Mustang, Hetauda and Solu Khumbu to see people seeing again. She noticed that Ruit preferred to work barefoot ‘allowing him complete control of the pedal under the table that pulls focus on his microscope’.
The book recounts Ruit’s vision for Tilganga, the rapport he shares with Bhutan’s Queen grandmother, the eye camp in North Korea where minders followed their every move, his meeting with the Dalai Lama, the challenges in manufacturing low-cost intraocular lens in Kathmandu, and a treacherous journey to Mustang for a field camp.
There will be tears of joy and of sadness, there will be elation and wonder as you turn the pages of The Barefoot Surgeon. This is a moving portrayal of a great Nepali whose work has transcended borders to transform many, many lives.