The mission to Moscow was to save the eye-sight of a leading Soviet official, and today three Johns Hopkins surgeons reported their "mission apparently accomplished."
But, in their first interview since returning to the United States Sunday, they said that their Russian mystery patient asked them not-to reveal his identity.
They may, they reported, say he was not President Leonid I. Brezhnev, though the man is "without any question" a very important "senior citizen" in the Soviet political hierarchy.
The Johns Hopkins eye surgeons today told the story of their operation on Sunday, Oct. 14, at Moscow's most prestigious hospital, a medical mission that ignored any chill in Soviet-American relations.
They reported that despite a definite risk to the patient, the operation -- a "vitrectomy" to remove an abnormal membrane from the back of the eye -- proceeded without complication. They said their patient should regain about half his vision in an eye in which he previously was, by general definition, "legally blind."
They told how the highly delicate 2 1/2-hour operation was performed by Hopkins surgeon Ronald G. Michels, with the assistance of Hopkins' Thomas Rice and Walter Stark and the Soviet Union's top eye surgeon, Mikhail Krasnov.
Krasnov visited Baltimore's Johns Hopkins Hospital last May. Hopkins is the site of the renowned Wilmer Eye Institute and is the work base of Michels.
Michels is a leading practitioner of the vitrectomy operation, which involves removing or probing the vitreous fluid or jelly that fills the eyeball.
Krasnov watched Michels operate last May, then asked if he would be willing to see an "important" patient in Moscow and possibly operate on him.
"I suggested," said Michels today, that the patient be flown to Baltimore because "we would probably do a better job here." Krasnov said that was not possible.
Michels then gave Krasnov a list of the necessary surgical instruments and American suppliers. In June the Hopkins surgeon was visited by a Soviet embassy official from Washington, who issued an official invitation.
On Oct. 13, the Maryland surgeons flew to Moscow. With Krasnov, they saw their patient-to-be almost immediately.
His vision, they found, was virtually gone in the effected eye (Michels would not say which eye) and his total vision was troubled, even though his other eye was less seriously diseased. The decision was that surgery could help.
Their patient, said Michels, was "a very intelligent individual who asked all the right questions," but "once he became confident in me and my team, relied on us to do the job."
"The job" was done the next day at the well-equipped Clinical Hospital of the Soviet Ministry of Public Health, where Soviet leaders often are treated.
The operation consisted first of making three tiny incisions in the white of the eye, near the dark, central iris. Through these incisions -- each no bigger than the prick of a medical needle -- the surgeons' incredibily fine instruments were placed.
One was a fine light to illuminate the eye's interior. Others were picks and combined suction and cutting devices, through which Michels first withdrew about half of the gelatin-like vitreous to give himself working space.
Then, working with his colleagues through an operating microscope with triple eyepieces, he gradually picked and peeled away the unwanted membrane. The membrane was a thin curtain of scar tissue covering the macula, or most sensitive area of the retina, the main organ of vision.
Removing the membrane was the heart of the surgery, though new fluid also had to be inserted into the eye pending new growth of the vitreous jelly.
The cause of the scarring? "We don't know." Michels said, though he said it is most common in the elderly.
The Hopkins team stayed in Moscow long enough to see the bandages removed from the eye and to determine that their patient was "seeing better" and has a good chance of regaining working vision, with glasses.
The Soviets paid the trip's entire cost. The Hopkins surgeons did not charge any fee.
The Associated Press last week quoted sources as identifying the surgeons' patient as Mikhail Suslov, 77, the Politburo's top ideologist. The Washington Post learned yesterday that the patient was not Suslov, though he was an important official.
A reporter asked the surgeons if they felt any pressure while doing the operation in the shadow of the Kremlin.
"It was apparent," said Michels lightly, that "if humanly possible a successful result should be achieved."
But he added that "we were never intimidated in any way.
"We were treated only graciously" he said, and the doctors felt the need to communicate with the U.S. embassy only "to find out the scores in the World Series."