Remembering Optometrist Dr. Tom Little

Many people talk–a lot–about their personal faith and how “things ought to be.”

Dr. Tom Little was one of those rare breeds who actually lived what he believed, putting flesh and bones–and blood–to all those words. Rather than yammering on and on until eyes glaze over in “here we go again” ennui, he looked around at the things that were askew and out of balance in the world and then went forth and actually did something about it.

Dr. Little was an optometrist and the leader of a group of medical relief workers in Afghanistan that was mercilessly ambushed and executed in a remote valley north of Kabul recently. The team was working with the Christian relief organization International Assistance Mission and had just completed an eye care clinic for indigent Afghans.

They were a motley crew: Christians of various stripes, local Muslims who were serving as guides and trying to earn extra money for their families, and one unaffiliated “secular humanist,” general surgeon Dr. Karen Woo, who had left behind a cushy job in Great Britain and whose winsome humor, adventuresome spirit and penchant for colorful headscarves were the talk of Kabul–especially among eligible bachelors.

They were returning from their trip when they were tracked down and confronted by one of the armed bands of militants so common in that area of the world. According to Tom’s widow Libby, it wasn’t the first time that had happened. In past instances, Tom and his teams had been able to negotiate, perhaps offering their AK-47-carrying interlocutors some artificial tears to remove the specks of dust from their eyes and conducting an eye clinic right there on the spot.

This time they were not as fortunate. Except for one survivor who successfully begged for his life, each was executed, either by bullet or grenade, one by one.  The Taliban claimed responsibility (though no one can be sure), accusing the group of “proselytizing” and “spying,” citing Bibles and “spy gadgets” found in their possession.

I had never really thought of an ophthalmoscope that way before, but I guess there is some truth in it.

Tom Little was no naive idealist or pampered professional out on a little foreign jaunt to relieve his guilt and boredom. He and his wife had moved to Afghanistan in 1970s following seminary training and raised their three daughters there, surviving the Soviet occupation and rise of the Taliban along the way. He became an optometrist in a roundabout, back door sort of way. The son of an ophthalmologist in New York, Little had worked as an optician and learned basic exam techniques in his father’s practice and was naturally drawn to the work at Noor Eye Hospital in Kabul. Over the years, he learned rough and rugged third-world optometry by the seat of his pants. Even without a professional degree, he ironically became a leading “authority” for eye care in Afghanistan.

In his late 50s, Tom Little returned to the United States and enrolled at the New England College of Optometry’s accelerated Advanced Standing International Program in Boston, which is designed to get foreign-trained medical doctors, optometrists and overseas workers “up to speed” with U.S. standards of care. Little received his Doctor of Optometry from NECO in just two years, graduating in 2008, and returned to Afghanistan hoping to use his training to further the breadth and quality of eye care available in that country. He had always been “Dr. Tom” to his grateful patients, but now it was official.

I think it is important to remember Dr. Tom Little, Dr. Karen Woo and the other Westerners and Afghans who together died a lonely and gruesome death, their only “crime” being that they cared for people who could neither see nor attain the even the most basic medical care. They were not all on the same page in matters of religious faith, but they shared a common goal–a love for hurting people and a burning desire to set the world to rights. When their blood spilled, it was all the same color.

Yes, remember them, and consider well this story as we near the end of our long, hot summer of discontent when so many preachers, politicians and pundits, from the comfort of their air-conditioned caves, weigh in on the propriety of an Islamic community center housing a small area of worship, open to all, designed to promote understanding and good will among various faiths, being built near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

And know this: There is not a single one of those preachers, politicians and pundits–no not one!–who is worthy enough to kneel and lick the dust and blood from Dr. Tom Little’s boots.