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One doctor, 100,000 sets of eyes made good

Published: Friday, March 23 2012 10:59 p.m. MDT

Saduk Ruit, an opthmologist from Katmandu, talks about his experiences in Nepal during an interview Friday, March 23, 2012.

Joe DeLuca

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SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. doctors often travel to poor countries to teach modern medical procedures. But doctors from Utah have traveled to one of the world's poorest places to learn how to save eyes.

They've been mentored in cataract surgery by a doctor who grew up in a tiny Himalayan village that's so remote it takes a week to hike to the nearest school. Yet despite humble beginnings, Sanduk Ruit became an ophthalmologist and is credited with surgically restoring sight to an astounding number of blind people.

"It's well over 100,000, probably closer to 200,000 people that he has personally, with his hands, restored sight to," Geoffrey Tabin, professor of ophthalmology at the Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah, said.

If surgeons trained by Ruit are factored in, Tabin said, he's responsible for more than a million blind people regaining their sight. Ruit developed surgical techniques and management systems that allow cataract surgery to be done much faster, cheaper and almost as reliably as in high-tech countries.

"We could do it about seven times quicker than what you do here and for about one-30th of the cost that you spend here," Ruit said on a visit to the Moran Eye Center Friday. "You pay several thousand dollars here, and we can probably do it for 25 dollars there."

Ruit's methods are helping to fill a surgery gap that stretches across much of the Third World. In poor countries, a positive trend of increasing life spans has led to a tragic side-effect: As they reach advanced ages, vast numbers of people develop cataracts and go blind. Their sight can typically be restored with cataract surgery.

"We need to do about 100 million a year," Ruit said, "and we are just doing about 20 million."

Ruit is visiting Utah primarily to speak at a fundraiser for the Moran Eye Center. Coincidentally, he was on the University of Utah campus at the same time experts were holding a conference on global surgery at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Conference organizer Dr. Ray Price of the Center for Global Surgery had praise for Ruit's work.

"It's a model for what we're trying to accomplish worldwide."

Price estimates that 4 billion people live in areas so poor there is essentially no access to surgery. "There's a huge need for surgical care in these areas," Price said. "It has been neglected. How can we cure that? How can we fix it?"

He credits Ruit with providing some answers. He's trained other surgeons to take his techniques to millions of people in poor countries.

Tabin said some of Ruit's techniques are applicable in the U.S. but they have their greatest value in poor countries. That's because cataracts typically progress to total blindness in areas without good medical care. In developed countries, surgery is often done at much earlier stages of cataract development, long before they cause blindness.

Tabin said that Ruit's breakthroughs are not just in the realm of surgical technique. He has also designed new management systems that allow large numbers of operations to be done in a single day.

"It doesn't matter that he's from Nepal, from a small village, didn't start going to school until he got walked to a school at age 8." Tabin said. "He's a brilliant man who thinks and tries to improve things every day."

Ruit will speak Saturday night at a Snowbird fundraiser. The annual "Night For Sight" raises money for the Moran Eye Center's international effort which is aimed at saving and restoring vision in dozens of poor countries around the world.

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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