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.
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.
For our first consultation, I arrived early at Amoil’s office in Sandton, an affluent area in Johannesburg. A short while later, the presidential convoy — two darkly tinted Mercedes sedans — pulled up. Mandela stepped out of the second vehicle and entered the building accompanied by an entourage of … two. I waited nervously as he chatted with the receptionist. He gave her his full attention, emanating calm, warm intensity — a feeling of connection and understanding that I was soon to experience myself.
I greeted him, then quickly reverted to professional mode. After a thorough examination, I explained the problem and what I proposed to do about it, including the risks, benefits, recovery and necessary follow-up.
What I particularly remember about our exchange was the intelligence in his eyes, almost as if he understood this highly technical procedure before I even explained it. He posed a few insightful questions and quietly absorbed my answers. If only it were this easy to communicate with all of my patients. We scheduled the operation — a delicate, but brief, procedure under local anesthesia — for the following morning and it was successful.
I watched Mandela leave the hospital after the surgery. He spoke to a small crowd of admirers and hospital employees who had gathered in the main lobby. Even after a surgery, he took time to greet each individual with warmth and respect. Once again, I felt a sense of calm radiating from him, as if he were the quiet and powerful eye of a hurricane.
The operation required several follow-up appointments. When my wife and I arrived at Groote Schuur for the final follow-up, we were ushered into the salon to wait. A grand piano stood in one corner, so I sat down to pass the time. I forget now what I played but I remember the surreal feeling of entertaining my wife in such elegant surroundings, even as I waited to help one of the great men of history.
When Mandela arrived, I told him I needed a quiet place with good lighting and a stable chair. He suggested the upstairs Elephant Room, as his private suite was called. The small elevator, built years before, fit just three people snugly, so my wife and I rode with Mandela to the second floor.
His security detail was instructed to meet us there. The afternoon sun streaming between the curtains lighted the well-appointed Elephant Room. I performed a few final procedures to assure proper tear drainage, and then excused myself to wash my hands while Mandela and my wife chatted about our recent trip to the nearby wine region. I dried my hands and joined the conversation, reclining on a powder blue chaise and munching the Spanish peanuts offered by my host.
I was soon rewarded in three ways.
First, when I joined Mandela and my wife after the procedure, we ended up discussing the charity I had founded. Much to my surprise, Mandela offered to help by allowing me to list him as a special advisor to the One World Sight Project.
Second, I also was introduced to Amoil’s techniques in laser-vision correction, and subsequently performed studies at UC Irvine that proved those techniques were safe and efficient, leading to Food and Drug Administration approval of this technique.
Lastly, although we were told it couldn’t happen because of scarring from endometriosis, my wife conceived our only child on her birthday while at a safari lodge called Singita —which, in Swahili, means “Little Miracle.”
But I suppose my true reward and a source of unending satisfaction is having helped, in however small a way, one of the great human rights crusaders of our age. It’s a thrill and privilege I will never forget.
Dr. RICHARD WEISS practices in Newport Beach. This piece originally appeared on his website, https://www.drweiss.com.