Fighting blindness across borders

Geoffrey Tabin, MD, and his partners have provided screening and basic eye care for more than 13.1 million patients. Photo courtesy of Ace Kvale and the Himalayan Cataract Project.

Geoffrey Tabin, MD, Fairweather Foundation professor of ophthalmology and global medicine, is determined to see needless blindness eradicated worldwide during his lifetime. 

Tabin is mainly focused on curing the number one cause of world blindness, cataracts, that occur when the lens in the eye becomes cloudy. While cataracts are easily treatable, eye surgeons are not easily accessible in every country. To address this, Tabin teamed up with Sanduk Ruit, MD, to co-found the Himalayan Cataract Project (HCP) (see “Global impact: Generous donors support global health efforts for cataract blindness”, page 20).

Establishing eye care in Ethiopia

Next, through a collaboration with Bethlehem (BethyMekonnen, MD, clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology, Tabin and HCP are in the process of establishing an eye hospital in Ethiopia. With support from generous donors, the hospital will reside in Bahir Dar, a city in northern Ethiopia situated along the Blue Nile River.

Mekonnen, a former Stanford 2020 cornea fellow, grew up in Ethiopia. While completing her fellowship at Stanford she expressed her interest in the work Tabin was doing in Ethiopia. Tabin thought she could be a strong addition to the team, bolstering efforts of Hiwot Mengistie, MD, a talented, local Ethiopian doctor trained in Addis Ababa, along with a nurse, technician, and hospital administrative staff.

However, the current year-long civil war in Ethiopia and COVID-19 delayed the opening plans. Currently, building construction is still in its early stages with a tentative opening date of March 2022.

Bethlehem (Bethy) Mekonnen, MD, former cornea fellow and now faculty member, is hoping to help with the hospital in Ethiopia.

“Although the process is temporarily paused, I hope to help with the hospital in any way I can,” Mekonnen said. “Throughout my professional training, my plan has been to return to Ethiopia to provide high quality eye care, because I have seen first-hand the magnitude of work that has yet to be done. I look forward to the many ways I will be able to make a meaningful contribution.” 

Mekonnen grew up seeing firsthand examples of excellent patient care in Ethiopia from her dentist mother and her primary care practitioner father. It was clear to her from an early age that she wanted to pursue a career in medicine, but it was not until medical school that she decided on ophthalmology while completing an international rotation in Thailand.

“In Thailand I worked at a referral eye hospital that provided care to a large underserved population with over 30 ophthalmologists of various subspecialties,” Mekonnen said. “Throughout that time, I witnessed the enormous impact eye care had on patients, some traveling from other countries to receive care. I want to be a part of replicating a similar model in Ethiopia.”

Geoffrey Tabin, MD (front left), and Jeffrey Goldberg, MD, PhD (front middle), trained doctors in Kenya on glaucoma and cornea surgeries.

Training the next generation

In 2021, Tabin; Jeffrey Goldberg, MD, PhD, the Blumenkranz Smead professor and chair of ophthalmology; and David Rooney, MD, the former global ophthalmology fellow, traveled to Kenya and Tanzania to treat patients and train local surgeons. In both locations, Tabin trained specialists in corneal surgery, while Goldberg trained them in glaucoma surgery, and all contributed with high-volume cataract surgeries.

Moving forward, Tabin plans to broaden his training of Stanford students by teaching a new course to Stanford undergraduates focused on equity in global health.

“There are major disparities between high-income and low-income countries, and because of that it is crucial we train up the next generation to confront these disparities,” Tabin said. “Restoring vision should not be available to some, but rather to all, and we are at the forefront of changing that.”


Kathryn Sill is a web and communications specialist for the Byers Eye Institute in the Department of Ophthalmology, at Stanford University School of Medicine. Email her at