PARK CITY — Some days, stories are harder to find than more tax deductions.
Some days, the stories come to you.
Two weeks ago I was at my neighborhood library and asked if they had the new book “Second Suns” by David Oliver Relin, the man who wrote the 2006 bestseller “Three Cups of Tea.” “Second Suns” is about humanitarian doctors restoring sight in the Himalayas and I wanted to read it because of how much I’d enjoyed Relin’s writing in his previous book.
I was aware that Greg Mortenson, the school-building humanitarian of “Three Cups of Tea,” had run into problems dealing with exaggerations and inaccuracies in his story, but no way was I laying that on Relin. When you’re helping someone write a first-person account, there’s no more ultimate source than the first person.
The library said they didn’t have “Second Suns,” but they’d order it.
A week later, they called.
At about 10 that night I assumed my usual position – leather chair next to the fireplace, bowl of ice cream, reading glasses – and opened the book to the first page, expecting to be suddenly transported to the mountains of Nepal, where the sight-restoring cataract surgeries take place.
Just as suddenly, I found myself back home in Utah. Practically outside my front door.
There are two doctors who co-star in “Second Suns.” One is a man named Sanduk Ruit, who lives in his native Nepal.
The other is a man named Geoffrey Tabin, who lives in Park City.
“Second Suns” opens with Relin’s description of Tabin driving down I-80 in his Ford Escape on the way to surgical rounds at the University of Utah’s Moran Eye Center, which is where he can be found when he’s not halfway around the world helping poor people see.
In the ensuing 415 pages, David Oliver Relin paints his own first-person account – apparently he was taking no chances this time – of the three-plus years he spent traveling with Doctors Ruit and Tabin. He tells of the Himalayan Cataract Project they have formed and its objective of eradicating preventable blindness in underdeveloped places that include not just Nepal but many other countries. Basically, the two men are Mother Teresa in male bodies, and carrying scalpels.
Here’s how Relin summed them up at the end of the book: “By my estimate more than two million sight-restoring surgeries could already be traced to these two men and the motivated individuals they’d set in motion. Pound for pound, footstep for footstep, who was doing a more impressive job of making the world better for those whom poverty had dealt the worst hand?”
When I finished reading that passage and closed the book I looked up Geoff Tabin in the Park City phone directory. He was listed. Not only that, when I called the number, his wife, Jean, also an ophthalmologist at the Moran, answered. I explained who I was and what I wanted and she said, “He’s sitting right beside me. Why don’t you talk to him?”
Fifteen minutes later I was in Jean and Geoff Tabin’s unpretentious farm-style house on the outskirts of town, somewhat bewildered that I was talking face-to-face with the man I’d just read about who is responsible for 2 million people who were blind but now they see.
But if I was in awe, Tabin didn’t appear to be.
When I asked him about his life’s work, he deflected all credit to his partner.
“I liken my role to the enthusiastic fat boy who plays because he brought the ball,” he said. “(Dr.) Ruit is such an amazing man, so skilled, so innovative. All the really big substantial things that have changed eye care came from him. I’ve ridden along on his coattails.”
He and Ruit participated enthusiastically in Relin’s book project, Tabin explained, to help draw attention to what they are doing and potentially attract more assistance. “We want to raise the profile of human blindness and what can be done any way we can,” he said. “Overcoming preventable blindness is one of those things we can really win.”
Alas, no causes, no matter how good, run completely smooth, and Tabin agreed that the suicide death last November of the author of “Seconds Suns” has cast a somber pall on the book’s release this summer.
David Oliver Relin died at his own hand only days after he sent the completed manuscript of “Seconds Suns” to Random House. News reports said Relin suffered from mental depression, and suggested the ongoing problems with Greg Mortenson’s inaccuracies in “Three Cups of Tea” possibly contributed to his woes.
“I feel terrible about what happened,” said Tabin, who noted that during their extensive travels Relin gave no outward signs of severe mental distress.
“What I do know,” he added, “is that he felt strongly, very passionately, about wanting to do good with his writing.”
However much good the book does – and over time I think it will be plenty – the beat will go on. Dr. Tabin is off to Rwanda and Ethiopia next week, helping further establish the network of free- and low-cost clinics the HCP and others, including the Moran Eye Center, are sponsoring in Africa. (Learn more at cureblindness.org).He said he’ll be taking his 16-year-old daughter, Sara, a junior-to-be at Park City High School with him, meaning she’ll be a couple of days late for the start of school.
Note to the Park City High attendance office: that excuse that says Sara was in Africa helping her father wipe out preventable blindness? Absolutely true. Every word of it.
Then, in October, Tabin will be on his way back to Nepal for about the zillionth time – curing the blind, one cataract at a time.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. EMAIL: email@example.com