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Tibet: Eye Camp - Restoring vision at the top of the world

September 23, 2007

BY Isaac Solotaroff
PBS September 20, 2007

"Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in the world," explains
reporter Isaac Solotaroff in this week's Rough Cut, filmed on the
stunning high plains of Tibet.

In a country where much of the population lives at elevations of 15,000
feet, where solar radiation poses a high risk for cataracts, the disease
has become an epidemic. Many of those afflicted with cataracts come from
the poorest communities -- nomadic herders who have limited access to
healthcare and face inevitable blindness without surgery.

But since 1995, an enterprising American ophthalmologist, Dr. Marc
Lieberman, has been traveling to Tibet twice a year to run mobile eye camps.

A deeply spiritual man, Lieberman was inspired by the Dalai Lama to
pursue his medical mission. Although his work is often made difficult by
the political tensions of Tibetan life under Chinese rule, the primary
goal of his nonprofit Tibet Vision Project is to train the Tibetan
medical community to do the cataract surgeries themselves. (You can read
more about Lieberman's experiences in Tibet in his interview.)

Filmmaker Isaac Solotaroff, who produced the recent FRONTLINE/World
broadcast story about the controversial Arab comic book The 99, began
documenting Lieberman's work in 2000. His feature-length documentary
"Visioning Tibet" has been playing in film festivals since 2005. In his
Rough Cut version for us, Solotaroff updates his film, focusing on one
of Lieberman's trips to a remote clinic.

Accompanied by his colleague Dr. Melvyn "Yogi" Bert, Lieberman makes the
familiar but arduous journey from San Francisco to Kathmandu, then on to
Lhasa in Tibet, where they meet up with other medical practitioners. "It
takes us five days to get to Lhasa," Lieberman explains, with the added
stress of transporting medical supplies. And that's just the start. Next
comes two days on the road in the back of a four-wheel drive, navigating
potholes and broken bridges to reach the northern Tibet town of Sok
Xian, where the weeklong eye camp will commence.

With advance news of the team's arrival, hundreds of Tibetans have
descended on the town, hoping to be treated. One elderly herder named
Lhasang, has camped there for a week with his entire family.

"My four children," he says, pointing them out one by one, "They are
great! I am very unhappy when I can't see them and very excited about

But Lieberman's goodwill mission gets off to a rocky start. Since his
last visit, the new medical building earmarked for surgeries has been
turned into an impromptu hotel for local medical staff and the
facilities have been neglected.

"The operating room looks like something out of a penal colony on
Devil's Island," Lieberman tells Solotaroff, and threatens to head
straight back to Lhasa.

Eventually, the Chinese and Tibetan officials clear the way for
Lieberman to deliver the quality medical care he insists on for his
impoverished patients. His team screens 300 patients and finds that
about a third can be helped by cataract surgery. Working continual
14-hour shifts, American and Tibetan surgeons will restore the vision of
108 people before the week is out. They've treated thousands of patients
since the eye camps started more than a decade ago.

Solotaroff's journey with the doctors captures many delightful moments,
particularly among the Tibetan families who arrive at the camp full of
anticipation and filled with gratitude when the doctors restore their sight.

"May you live for a thousand years!" declares one man as the camp is
wrapping up and he's given a flashy new pair of sunglasses to protect
his reclaimed vision. The Western doctors return the adulation by
honoring the Tibetans who work alongside them. "Her skills are superb,"
Lieberman says congratulating Dr. Zheng Gui Ying, one of his proteges.
"She can now do a perfect cataract operation in 15 minutes. And she
trains other surgeons."

Lieberman's aim, after all, is to ultimately work himself out of a job.

-- Jackie Bennion

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