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Oct/Nov 2018 Reviews & Interviews

The Barefoot Surgeon

The Barefoot Surgeon.
Ali Gripper.
Allen & Unwin. 2017. 264 pp.
ISBN 978 1 76029 270 6.

Review by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! The story of Sanduk Ruit's life is so extraordinary, it is almost unbelievable. That a boy from the lowest tier of a rigid Nepalese class system, who grew up in a remote mountain village without schools, electricity, telephones, radio, or TV, cut off for much of the year by ice and snow, should grow up to be a world-renowned eye-surgeon and humanitarian, is truly remarkable. The challenges he set himself and those who eventually worked with him and for him often seemed insurmountable. But he surmounted every obstacle, not just by his extraordinary skill, but through determination, courage, and often, sheer bloody-mindedness.

As American ophthalmologist Dick Litwin (one of Sanduk's early Western supporters, who worked with him in remote camps in Nepal) noted: "Ruit had a rare quality. He was a monomaniac, obsessed with just one goal in life. He'd wake up every morning and think about how many blind people they could cure that day."

Sanduk Ruit was born in 1954. For much of his childhood his father was away, travelling through the Himalayas on foot with yaks and dzos to trade salt and other goods between Tibet and Calcutta. In his travels, Sanduk's father had seen the value of education. He recognized Sanduk's quick, inquiring mind and chose to send him to school in Darjeeling. So, at the age of seven, Sanduk walked 150 kilometers with his father, along treacherous paths, across canyons on terrifying planks and suspension bridges, and through a blizzard to get to the school. There his father left him.

Lessons were in Nepali and English, neither of which Sanduk knew, and it took him six months to make any sense of them. He was bullied by the other boys, who called him "country bumpkin." And he was the only boy who never went home on the holidays. It was just too far. His response was to bury himself in books and learning.

A bad spell in hospital during one holiday period taught him mental stamina and lessons about the treatment of patients he never forgot. And the death of his much-loved younger sister from treatable TB, because the family could not afford the necessary medicines, made him determined to become a doctor and to help the poorest of his people.

Ali Gripper tells Sanduk's story in detail but with enough human interest to make it easy and enjoyable reading. She charts Sanduk's struggles to acquire the necessary scholarship to attend medical school, his training in ophthalmology, his investigation of new techniques for treating cataracts, and the animosity of others in his chosen profession when he began to treat the poorest people with a simple, quick technique requiring little in the way of technological equipment. She tells of the remote camps to which hundreds of blind people would come for his attention, and of the seemingly miraculous return of sight to these people, whose lives had often been destroyed because of their blind helplessness. She has clearly met and talked with a number of the unusual and dedicated people who traveled and worked with Sanduk, as well as with his family and friends, and she tells of their adventures with him.

The stories of those treated by Sanduk are immensely moving. He has taken his clinics to the poorest, most isolated areas of the country and to people who are usually far from medical help. And people still come in their hundreds, walking long distances, bringing blind relatives in baskets to be treated by Sanduk and his loyal team of nurses in the most primitive conditions. He has taken his clinics, too, to some of the most isolated and dangerous places in Nepal, and has braved civil war, treating people from both sides and from all religions and castes. His ambition is still to cure as many people of blindness as possible.

It was Sanduk's great good fortune to meet the maverick Australian ophthalmologist Fred Hollows, who had set up eye clinics for Australia's indigenous people, treating trachoma and performing essential eye surgery. Hollows was dedicated to treating curable blindness in the poorest communities, and he became Sanduk's mentor, teaching him, supporting his aims and helping to raise funds for him. A few other Westerners also supported his work, but mostly Sanduk forged his own path and took huge risks to achieve his goals. Even getting married was fraught with difficulties, because he fell in love with a woman of a higher caste and both their families rejected them. His determination, again, solved the problem, and Nanda, his wife, became his most loyal supporter, putting up with financial difficulties, with his long absences in dangerous places with no possibility of communication, and bearing the major role in raising their children. Family is vitally important to Sanduk, and he carefully sets aside time for them.

Sanduk has now operated on the poorest people in North Korea and Japan and has taught his methods to doctors in those countries so they can carry on his work. His methods have won international approval. At great risk, financial and personal, he has set up a factory to make inexpensive lenses; has founded the Nepalese Eye Programme (which began with only $200 to its name); and has organized a method of harvesting healthy corneas from those brought for burial at the cremation ghats close to the Tilganga Institute for Ophthalmology, which he founded in Kathmandu.

Sanduk is no angel. He admits to frequent impatience and anger, and to his earlier addiction to alcohol and cigarettes. His present addiction, he says, ruefully, is to food. But his major addiction is clearly to his work and to the looks of joy on the faces of those to whom he has newly given the gift of sight.

You can read about Sanduk Ruit's career and achievements online, but in The Barefoot Surgeon Ali Gripper reveals the human side of the story.

 

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