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The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Ophthalmologist Geoff Tabin has performed thousands of cataracts surgeries and has created systems to facilitate many thousands more through the Himalayan Cataract Project. In this post, Dr. Tabin tells us about one of his patients and her unforgettable transformation.

My most memorable smile of transformation was the first grin flashed to me by Gloria, a sixteen-year old from a blind school in Kaduna, Nigeria. Gloria was a sullen, depressed girl living in squalor in an underfunded home for disabled orphans in a dusty, cramped corner of a destitute district in Northern Nigeria. Her parents both died of HIV. At age six she had been hit in the left eye by a stone and lost vision from a retinal detachment. When she was nine she had a scratch to her cornea. Gloria was taken to a native healer who rubbed the eye with a brush and put in a local healing ointment. The result was a completely opaque cornea. She could only discern light from dark, unable to notice the shadow of a hand moving directly across her face.

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Gloria had a blank disinterested expression and her thin body was twisted like a pretzel. They told me that she was put on the street every morning to beg. She was minimally co-operative when I first examined her eyes. Blind for six years, she seemed to have lost all hope for life.

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Dr. Tabin examining Gloria.

I thought there was a chance to restore normal vision that would last her lifetime if I could transplant the healthy cornea from her left eye into her right. The eye is like a camera with lenses in the front of the eye that focus light onto the retina, the nerve cells that are like the film in the camera at the back. Gloria’s left eye was blind from non-repairable damage to the back of the eye, but had a healthy front. The right had a scarred front but appeared to have an intact retina. By transplanting her own tissue we would not have to worry about her body’s immune system rejecting the cornea. I convinced Gloria, and Andy who ran the blind school, to let me try to transplant her own cornea from the left to the right.

We removed the patch the next morning. Gloria initially had a look of bewilderment. Then she began to slowly survey her surroundings. After about a minute she began to grin. The grin expanded into a shining white-toothed smile that lit up the room. When I came back thirty minutes later she had fully transformed.

Gloria was sitting up straight and laughing while she ate her breakfast. The next day she was a normal feisty sixteen year-old. After five days she announced she was leaving the blind school. My last email from Gloria told me that she is doing great and studying to become a nurse.

Watch the video below to see Gloria’s transformation.