Dec 17

Mandela, Eye Surgery, and the Miracle Baby

Richard Weiss, M.D. and Nelson Mandela

Maybe it is just me, but the last person I expected to be thoroughly engaging, much less funny, was an ophthalmic plastic and reconstructive surgeon.

I can barely spell what Richard Weiss does and, truly, have no real idea of what that actually is. I was expecting an older, graying, monotone-in-speech guy, one who would barely tolerate my interrupting his schedule before tossing me squarely out.

But there I was the other day in Weiss’ Newport Beach office that overlooks Fashion Island, trying to keep up as the good doctor raced from room to room, playing a jazz tune on the keyboard he keeps in a back office before he excitedly invited me into a different room to peer into the recently sutured eyes of a patient he had just operated on.

I went there for one specific reason, invited by members of his staff, but that didn’t seem to matter to Weiss, who at one moment was regaling me with the saga of the Miracle Baby, and the next was telling of “One Spirit,” the song he wrote that Stevie Wonder loved and helped him clean up.

It is only after I notice and comment on the photograph of him and Nelson Mandela hanging on a wall, the one the late former president of the Republic of South Africa signed for him, does Weiss’ reluctance to talk about the time he spent with the icon dawn on me.

“He was just another patient,” he says, finally seated at his desk, “same as if you were a patient. Why would I have to go around telling people about it?”

But it was Nelson Mandela, I say. Only then does he go into boring, monotone-in-speech-guy mode. He had to explain to me what he does, and why the then-leader of a nation would summon him.

It was 1995, he said. Oculoplastic surgeons at the time were ridiculously low in number. Only 20 to 25 physicians each year were being trained in the specialty.

The South African president’s eyes were constantly running with tears, causing them to run down his face. It was making it virtually impossible for him to read a teleprompter. Plus, it just looked bad. Mandela’s physician wanted to fix it.

But he either didn’t know how or simply decided he wouldn’t risk taking on the delicate surgery Mandela needed. The physician remembered hearing Richard Weiss speak at a conference, and called from Pretoria to Newport Beach.

“It was all because of the time Mandela spent imprisoned on Robben Island,” Weiss, 60, explained. “It was all because of the dust and gravel there.”

First, a relatively quick, bare bones lesson on the eye as given to me by Richard Weiss:

The large lacrimal gland is situated above the outer rim of the eye, and produces “reflex tears,” what the eye secretes in response to emotion, injury or irritation.

The accessory lacrimal glands run along the upper lid of the eye, and secrete high quality “constant tears.” Basically they ward off infection and cool, comfort and lubricate the eye.

The punctum is a small, external orifice in the corner of the eye that is a drain for tears, through which tears flow into the lacrimal sac and, later, into the nose.

Mandela’s punctum was clogged. And at the time, Weiss was one of only four or five surgeons experienced enough to open it.

After trying and failing a couple of times to tell Mandela’s physician how to perform the surgery, Weiss and his wife, Portia, were flown to the South African capital.

His visit, Weiss said, was kept very much under the radar.

“Anytime he did anything at that time – even if he got a cold – it was in the news,” he said. “You couldn’t have the president of South Africa tearing up, unable to read a teleprompter.”

He and Portia were taken to Mandela’s physician’s home in a suburb of Johannesburg. Apartheid hadn’t just vanished, he said.

“It was so surreal,” Weiss said. “I still can’t believe it. He was living in a white neighborhood, and inside his home he had this big safe room. I mean, they were still under siege.”

Weiss was ready to get to work, only his patient was nowhere near. Mandela was at a peace conference in Oslo. He would not return for three days. He and Portia used the time to book a room at Singita, a nearby game preserve.

Three days later, Mandela arrived in a caravan of two Mercedes sedans.

“He was so peaceful, so grounded,” Weiss remembered. “There were good vibrations coming from him. And he gave the same respect and time to the receptionist as he did to me. He was so comfortable within himself.”

Weiss told the president his plan.

“I got the feeling he understood exactly what I was saying. I wish every patient I have would give me the knowing look he gave to me.”

The procedure took place in a Cape Town clinic. It lasted all of 30 minutes.

Weiss remained in South Africa another three weeks, each day visiting Mandela in his private bedroom to probe the original incision to keep it open.

“I actually played piano for Mandela,” Weiss said.

It is at this point that Weiss finally finishes the Miracle Baby story.

He and Portia arrived at the airport for their trip home. He had boarded the plane ahead of his wife, and was in his seat when she arrived a bit haggard and flustered.

The flight attendant, Portia told him, had literally grabbed her by the lapels, began shaking her and asking, “Where’s the baby?” over and over.

Portia explained again and again that she had no baby. No, she and Weiss had long ago given up hope of ever having a child. They could not figure what that was about.

Days later, Portia was at home, sick in bed, when the woman who had introduced her to Richard called to say she had this stark, vivid dream that Portia was pregnant.

Portia laughed at her friend, but did agree to humor her by going out for a test kit at the local pharmacy. The test came back positive.

“Remember I told you about Singita, the game preserve?” Weiss asked me, smiling. “You know what that name means, don’t you? It means place of miracles.”

The other day their son, Remy, just turned 18.