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Commentary: My eye-opening opportunity to operate on Mandela

December 27, 2013|By Richard Weiss

How, you may ask, did I end up washing my hands in President Nelson Mandela's bathroom in Groote Schuur, the opulent mansion built by DeBeers founder Cecil Rhodes and now used as the official residence of South African presidents?

I wish I could say it was the reward for my efforts to free Mandela from prison at Robben Island but the truth is he was not the main focus of my college-era activism. I barely knew his name back then and he was jailed for reasons I dimly understood.

No, my journey to South Africa began when two seemingly unrelated passions of mine converged. First was my medical practice, which began with an ophthalmology residency at Georgetown University, followed by special fellowship training in ophthalmic plastic and reconstructive surgery at the University of Toronto.

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Second was my love of music. In 1988, I had written a song called "One Spirit," which, in turn, inspired me to create the One World Sight Project, a nonprofit based in Newport Beach dedicated to curing the 25 million people in the world needlessly blinded by cataracts. Knowing that they could be permanently cured with a 25-minute procedure at a cost of $25 once again brought out the activist in me. Raising funds instead of fists became a life goal to which I have since linked all of my other personal and professional activities.

One day, I was talking about the One World Sight Project with Percy Amoils, a South African eye surgeon who had recently performed cataract surgery on Mandela. Aware of my expertise in ophthalmic plastic surgery, he asked me about an unusual condition related to President Mandela's long imprisonment. This condition caused such excessive tearing that Mandela was forced to continually wipe the tears from his cheeks with a tissue.

I'd successfully performed this corrective surgery on several occasions so I offered Amoils some advice. He tried a few maneuvers, but they were unsuccessful. Much to my surprise, I soon received an invitation from Mandela to fly to South Africa and perform the necessary procedure. I caught my breath; I was being invited to perform surgery on one of the most influential and admired men in the world.

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