Sunday, November 24, 2013

Lessons from World War II Bringing Sight to the Blind In the 21st Century

A patient thanks Dr. Geoff Tabin for her sight.
As a student of history, for me war is one of the most fascinating subjects to read about, reflect upon and study.

To study war is to bear witness to mankind at his best in terms of characteristics like bravery and the willingness to sacrifice; or in terms of the mastery of technology and new innovations. But it is also mankind at his worst in terms of sheer savagery and almost incalculable destruction and loss.

If you look at the conflicts raging across parts of the globe right now as you read this, it seems too often we seem to forget the costly lessons paid for by the suffering and dying of so many. But war has also yielded some innovations that are in the end, beneficial to mankind. Things that can ease suffering and save lives.

Case in point: the ophthalmologists Dr. Geoff Tabin and Dr. Sanduk Ruit, co-founders of an amazing global charitable effort called The Himalayan Cataract Project.

The other night I watched a fascinating report by ITV's John Irvine on the NBC Nightly News Website about the project's global effort to offer fast, low-cost cataract surgery to return sight to people in Third World nations blinded as a result of malnutrition, sub-standard water supplies and lack of medical care; all too familiar symptoms of the global scourge of poverty. 

While Irvine's ITV report specifically covered Dr. Tabin's vision-restoring surgery in the Uttar Pradesh region of rural India, the project also flies teams into impoverished areas all over Asia and Africa. It's a quick 5-minute surgery to remove the cataract from the eye and replace it with an artificial lens; a lens with origins rooted in the skies over Europe in World War II.

As Irvine revealed, the technique was originally conceived by a British ophthalmologist who treated RAF fighter pilots who had pieces of glass from the canopies of Spitfire fighter planes lodged in their eyes after explosions in or around the cockpit. The British doctor discovered that the glass stuck in the pilot's eye did not get infected as the eye did not reject the material - so the lens used by Dr. Tabin to save the vision of impoverished people around the world is the very same material used in the cockpits of British Spitfire fighter planes from World War II.

Just imagine that, the miracle of people regaining their eyesight from a lesson learned from a tool of destruction in a war that ended sixty eight years ago. Wars have taught us many such lessons.
The Civil War taught generations of surgeons, medical personnel and teachers techniques on treating traumatic injuries as well as triage techniques to get the wounded from the battlefield to the hospital faster with a better chance of survival and recovery. Consider that the next time you see an ambulance racing by; the modern concept of a specialized means to rapidly transport an injured or sick person to a hospital is a direct result of tragic lessons learned by the Army in the Civil War.

Or consider the African-American surgeon and researcher Dr. Charles Richard Drew who's pioneering work in developing blood transfusion techniques enabled the large-scale storage of blood banks in the early 1940's is credited with saving the lives of thousands of soldiers in World War II; today about 85 millions units of red blood cells are transfused a year.

Please don't get me wrong, I'm no hawk running around waving the war flag or anything. But just as I think it's our collective duty to respect and honor the veterans who sacrifice for our country, it's equally critical to understand why we fought, where we fought, how we fought and most importantly WHY we fought.

Otherwise the horrific lessons learned from places like Shiloh, or the the Battle of the Marne or the Battle of Okinawa might be forgotten. Considering the amount of time kids in schools today spend on standardized testing I wonder if young students know the names of those places or what happened there. Like many others including John Lennon, I imagine a world where one day war will be a thing of the past, but for that to happen we must understand the past; and reflect on the lessons it teaches us today.

Watching the reactions of those who've had their eye sight restored, it's fair to say the efforts of Dr. Geoffrey Tabin, Dr. Sanduk Ruit and their medical teams demonstrate that at least some of those lessons will not be forgotten; and the sacrifice of those who lost their lives in war, while tragic, was not totally in vain.

No comments: