A 1995 surgical procedure left both the patient — South African leader Nelson Mandela — and his Northeast Philadelphia-born doctor changed for good.
Dr. Richard Weiss said he wishes more of his patients were like Nelson Mandela, whom he performed eye surgery on in 1995.
The oculoplastic surgeon from Northeast Philadelphia was asked to come to South Africa when a fellow physician who had consulted with him about Mandela was unable to fix a rather rare problem: the tear ducts in Mandela's eyes were closed, which meant the South African leader's teardrops would roll down his cheeks as though he were crying.
In a visit before the surgery, Mandela, who at that point was president of South Africa, "got into a chair, and it was he and I," Weiss recalled. "And I launched into an explantion of what I was going to do. I get the feeling sometimes when you explain things to patients, you're not sure if they're listening. But he was penetrating. His eyes were open."
It was quite an experience for a young surgeon who had only done such an operation about a half-dozen times and who, as a college student in the early 1970s at New York University, had attended marches to free Mandela and end apartheid.
"One of the high points of my life was being able to stop Mandela's tears," said Weiss, who is now 60 and living in Newport Beach, Calif.
Mandela's eye problems stemmed from his 27 years incarcerated on Robben Island, where prisoners spent much of their time working at a limestone quarry. The exposure to dust caused his tear ducts to become glued shut and his dry eye became so severe that he earned the description, "The man who could not cry."
After Mandela was released in 1990 and elected president in 1994, a doctor performed cataract surgery on him and used a procedure to lubricate the eyes, which left him with the opposite problem: too many tears.
"That wouldn't work because every time he would cry" during a speech, "the stock market would have gone down," Weiss said.
The doctor, whom Weiss had met at a conference, asked his advice on how to correct the issue, Weiss recalled. After being unable to fix it himself, the doctor said, "Why don't I just talk to the president and get you down here?"
Weiss flew to Johannesburg in 1995, met with Mandela at a clinic to discuss the surgery and then prepared for the operation.
There were some butterflies initially, Weiss admits, but, he said, "It was sort of like operating on my wife: Once you get started, it's like anyone else — you're just doing your job."
Weiss remained in South Africa for several weeks after the operation and saw Mandela a handful of times in follow-up appointments. As Weiss was leaving after one visit, he saw Mandela in the lobby talking with hospital workers and people who were preparing food.
"He gave the same attention to the lowliest hospital workers, to the doctors, to everyone he met. He felt like the most grounded person I had ever met," Weiss said.
The surgeon, who still makes several trips each year to visit his mother in Elkins Park, did not accept any money for operating on the man whose freedom he had marched for decades earlier. But he may have earned some good karma as a result. His wife, who accompanied Weiss to South Africa and had been struggling to get pregnant, gave birth to their only son nine months after the trip.
Weiss' interest in helping people in Africa started before meeting Mandela and has continued since. Six years before the surgery, Weiss started the One World Sight Project, an organization that, with the help of eye doctors and entertainers such as Stevie Wonder, works to cure blindness throughout the continent. Weiss describes Mandela as an inspiration for his efforts.
Speaking about the passing of Mandela, Weiss said, "He was just a kind of spirit to where the world is a little bit less for him not being around."