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Contributing Life's Lessons to HCP: The Michael Lewis Story

profiles | Jun 30, 2020

As the Himalayan Cataract Project marks our 25th year, few individuals have had the personal connection to our work as author, photographer, doctor and friend, Michael Lewis. Michael is an orthopedic surgeon at the Illinois Bone and Joint Institute and has been a team physician for the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Bulls.

In his latest book, The Ball’s in Your Court, Michael shares his most meaningful life’s lessons, including an entire chapter on Geoff Tabin and the work of HCP.

Michael first met Geoff more than thirty years ago when Geoff was studying medicine in Chicago. Over dinners in the Tabin household, Michael got to know Geoff’s father, Julius, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, and Geoff’s mother, Johanna, a renowned psychoanalyst. The families established a life-long connection. Michael notes that Julius ignored medical advice not to have children after being exposed to radiation at Los Alamos. Instead, they had two exceptional boys – Geoff and his brother Cliff, who is the chairman of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. Michael quotes Julius as saying, “I’m happy with the consequences of ignoring that medical advice.” In Julius’s last year, Michael’s wife Valerie read to him from Second Suns, the story of Geoff and Dr. Ruit coming together to form HCP, as Julius’s health was declining. At the time of their passing, Michael provided eulogies for both of Geoff’s parents.

In 2007, Michael and Valerie joined Geoff on one of his first trips to Ghana. Michael remembers Geoff as being impervious to hardship or jetlag. After an all-night flight, Geoff jumped into a truck with his microscope for a several-hour ride to an outreach site. He then performed numerous cataract surgeries and still wanted to go out dancing that night. Michael was inspired by the way Geoff and HCP had adapted the approach to outreach cataract delivery developed by Dr. Ruit and his team at Tilganga in Nepal to Africa - organizing and preparing hundreds of candidates for surgery. After surgery, on the following morning when the bandages were removed, the patients realized that they could suddenly see perfectly. Michael was exhilarated to see the joyous reaction from each individual, many of whom had been blind for years. “For $25 an eye, it’s as good as it gets; I can’t imagine a bigger bang for your buck on the planet,” he remarked.

As a result of his observing Geoff performing surgery at his eye camp, Michael produced Eagle Eyes, a children’s story about an 11-year old Ghanaian boy who discovers that there’s more to life than soccer when his grandfather’s sight is restored. The book, written by NYT best-selling author Jacqueline Mitchard with Michael’s photographs, has been credited with faithfully capturing village life in West Africa and inspiring preteenagers in both the United States and in Ghana.

Michael notes that for the first eight years HCP had no staff and was entirely dependent on Geoff’s volunteer efforts and fundraising. Michael and Valerie were among his early supporters and have continued to contribute, including the profits from the sales of Michael’s books. “As a donor,” Michael adds, “I’m gratified to see how far the organization has expanded, multiplying its impact with every new local hospital partner HCP trains and equips.”

His latest book, The Ball’s in Your Court, has attracted considerable interest, in part due to the popularity of ESPN’s “Last Dance” series on the championship seasons of the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, when Michael Lewis served as a team physician. The chapter on HCP and the fact that Michael is again donating the profits to HCP attracted the attention of Chicago businessman Chris Miller, who was inspired to contribute $10,000. “After I gave that donation, I have never felt better,” Chris acknowledges. “Knowing someone can see the sunrise, their grandchildren and where they are walking because of my help, just makes me want to help more!”

Tom Broussard was equally impressed. His late wife Mollie Martin is featured in the book as one of Michael’s early teachers. As his debate coach, she impressed on Michael and his colleagues their capacity to expand their horizons and their awareness of who they might become. Tom became a successful corporate tax attorney. Tom encourages others to purchase copies of The Ball’s in Your Court as a gift for family, friends, and business associates. Remarkably, Tom is pledging to match the profits that Michael is donating from the book up to $10,000. He is also challenging others to make their own commitments to match Michael’s donation of his royalties. These additional commitments will be announced on to stimulate sales of the book.

Michael sees several similarities between himself and his friend Geoff Tabin. They’re both surgeons, family oriented, love to discuss books and philosophy, and both play tennis, though Michael acknowledges that Geoff is much better. They both have a strong sense of humor, but Michael finds his own more age appropriate. Although Michael, along with Geoff, has many passions, Michael says no one can match Geoff’s energy level. Michael remarks that Geoff has so many projects whizzing around in his head that when he tells you on the phone that he’s on his way into surgery and will call you right back . . . he does, but it’s frequently three weeks later. All joking aside, Michael feels incredibly blessed that one of his lifetime heroes is also one of his best friends.

The release of his latest book is providing a vehicle for Michael to continue to serve in new capacities. The lessons that he describes in The Ball’s in Your Court have prompted invitations for him to give motivational talks. If you miss Michael’s talks, his principal advice comes from observing his friend Geoff Tabin in action: “Make a difference. Serve others. Life’s greatest joys come from devoting yourself to a cause greater than yourself.”

Thank you, Michael, for your commitment and generosity to Himalayan Cataract Project.

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