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For restoring gift of sight to thousands, Japanese eye doctor given Asia’s top honor

Tadashi Hattori, 58, is honored for his “skill and compassion in restoring the gift of sight to tens of thousands of people not his own”

For his “simple humanity and extraordinary generosity,” a Japanese ophthalmologist is given this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award, dubbed as “Asia’s Nobel Prize.”

Tadashi Hattori, 58, is honored for his “skill and compassion in restoring the gift of sight to tens of thousands of people not his own,” and for the inspiration he has given “that one person can make a difference in helping kindness flourish in the world.”

Hattori, who was born in Osaka, Japan, in 1964, graduated from Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine in 1993 and then went to work in hospitals in Japan.

Asked why he wanted to be a doctor, he said that he had resolved to become one when he was 15, after seeing his cancer-stricken father so rudely treated when he was admitted to the hospital.

He said he wanted to become a doctor who is sensitive to the feelings of patients and their families.

In 2002, he visited Hanoi for the first time at the invitation of a Vietnamese doctor, and found that in a country where cataract blindness was prevalent, there was a dire lack of eye specialists and up-to-date treatment facilities.

He noted that it was common for people in rural areas to go blind because they did not have access to needed care or could not afford the cost.

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The experience moved the young doctor.

When he returned to Japan, he used his savings to buy medical equipment and went back to Hanoi.

It was the start of a life mission that saw him shuttling between Japan and Vietnam almost every month, spending a total of 180 days in Vietnam — giving free eye treatments, training Vietnamese doctors, donating equipment and supplies to hospitals — and then going back to Japan to work in hospitals to raise money for his family and his mission.

“Whether people can see or not decisively affects their lives,” he told the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation. “Even just healing one eye may make it possible for someone to attend a school or go back to work,” he said.

“I can’t turn my back on people who are on the verge of losing their sight just because they lack the money to pay for treatment,” said Hattori. “My starting point as a doctor is to help people.”

He said a doctor “should have not only the skills but also the heart.”

To date, Hattori and his team of Vietnamese doctors have treated more than 20,000 patients, with Hattori performing up to 50 cataract operations in a day.

He has trained more than 30 Vietnamese doctors who can now perform sophisticated eye operations, and he has donated or facilitated the donation of medical equipment to local hospitals. He has also led medical missions with a team of Vietnamese doctors, giving free treatments and performing surgeries for thousands of people.

To support his work, Hattori founded the Asia-Pacific Prevention of Blindness Association in 2005. The association train doctors, help hospitals, and conduct free treatment and surgeries.

In 2014, with investors and medical colleagues, he founded the Japan International Eye Hospital in Hanoi to serve paying patients as a way of building a sustainable fund for free outreach programs.

Hattori is now regarded as one of Japan’s leading surgeons in vitrectomy and phaco surgery and called “the man with the golden hands.” He said, however, that it is still the heart that matters most.

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