In a dusty village in rural Tibet, ophthalmologist Marc Lieberman bent down as a small Tibetan man placed a flowing white scarf, a token of gratitude, around Lieberman’s shoulders. “May you live a thousand years,” the man said, looking into Lieberman’s eyes, “You have done us the greatest blessing.”
Though it might seem a very long way from Lieberman’s upbringing in Baltimore, to his years at Reed College, to this moment in Tibet, the San Francisco-based physician says it all fits together perfectly. “The journey I am on is one I have been on my whole life,” he said recently, sitting on the floor of his San Francisco apartment, reflecting on his experiences.
Twice a year, Lieberman travels to Tibet to spend two months providing delicate eye surgery to people who have lost their sight. His foundation, the Tibet Vision Project, trains local physicians, and restores sight, without charge, to people who have gone blind. The group also sets up systems to provide primary eye care—from eye glasses to the treatment of simple infections. In the past decade, the group has restored sight to more than 2,000 people in that country.
It’s not an easy task. Just getting to Kathmandu takes more than two days’ worth of travel on various airplanes—and then the real trip begins. Lieberman journeys across unbelievably rough terrain—washed out roads, muddy gulleys, broken bridges—deep into the heart of rural Tibet. Accompanied by trained Tibetan doctors, nurses, and technicians, Lieberman sets up mobile clinics, complete with microscopes, other medical equipment, and medicines.
Once word gets out that the eye team has come, the people begin arriving, first in a trickle, says Lieberman, then in a torrent. Family members come leading blind fathers, carrying blind children. Like Lieberman many patients have traveled for days to get there.
In Tibet, says Lieberman, cataracts are a rampant, unaddressed scourge, the leading cause of blindness because of the high altitude and the excessive exposure to UV light. The air is clear, the sun is intense, and the people suffer. “It’s an irony,” says Lieberman. “In such a beautiful, exquisite land and culture, so many are blinded and can’t even see their homeland.” One in every 25 adults over 40 has lost sight because of cataracts. Yet cataracts are a surgically curable disease. Lieberman’s aim is lofty: to end cataract blindness in Tibet by the year 2020.