Subject: Aussie docs let the sun shine again

Also - Gusmao to promote sight-saving efforts

Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia)

July 2, 2005 Saturday

Aussie docs let the sun shine again

For a small band of Australian eye doctors, reward comes when peeling back the bandages to restore the joy of lost sight, as ELLEN WHINNETT writes

THE old man is crawling on his hands and knees towards the gate when Australian doctor David McKnight spots him.

He has a bandage over his eye, is painfully thin, and can't see clearly enough to walk.

His feet are dusty and misshapen in his rubber thongs and he has carefully hitched up his traditional teis-cloth skirt.

He is planning to crawl home -- more than 3km -- when McKnight intercepts him and steers him back inside the hospital.

Like many who have come to this clinic in a remote region of East Timor, he simply doesn't have the 10c bus fare to get home.

He also has no money for food. There are no taxis here and no residential telephones to contact his family, if he has one.

McKnight, a Ballarat eye surgeon, is upset that he hasn't seen the man before he began crawling across the sharp gravel driveway of the Oecussi hospital.

Earlier, he had operated on the elderly patient, removing a cataract from his eye.

Now he helps him up and leads him back inside where a team of volunteer Australian doctors, nurses and optometrists have set up a specialist eye clinic.

The staff find him a bed -- an old, striped mattress on a rusty frame -- and promise a plate of food.

The next day, doctors will remove his bandage, clean his eye and he will walk out of the hospital able to see clearly for the first time in years.

"It's the difference really between life and death when they are profoundly blind," McKnight says.

"He can fend for himself and that makes a big difference to the family because they don't have to fend for him.

"That's one of the things in East Timor, the extended families have been destroyed over the years because people have been killed."

McKnight, 46, runs the Ballarat Eye Clinic, but takes regular time away from his practice to work in developing Pacific nations.

He said the attraction was being able to provide immediate help for some of the most needy people in our region.

A CATARACT removal takes little more than 20 minutes, but profoundly changes the life of the person who has been afflicted.

"We're not talking here about people being able to read their stock reports, we're talking about them being able to walk to the market and get some food," McKnight says.

The violence which accompanied East Timor's decision to declare its independence from Indonesia in 1999 left the world's newest nation in ruins.

Rampaging militia violence saw buildings and infrastructure destroyed, while health services crumbled and withdrew back into neighbouring Indonesia.

The Australian volunteers have been working since 2000 to provide specialist eye services to East Timor, treating cataract blindness, trauma injuries, cancers and Vitamin A deficiency.

A program run by the International Centre for Eye Care Education sees optometrists work in remote areas and provide glasses.

"We see all the diseases we see in Australia but we see them at a much younger age and in a much more advanced state than we see them in Australia," McKnight says.

"And we see infections like tuberculosis we don't see in Australia."

The elderly man from Oecussi is one of 1200 people who have undergone cataract operations since the East Timor Eye Program began.

The volunteer doctors, nurses and optometrists have examined more than 20,000 people in the past four years and prescribed 17,000 pairs of glasses, working in remote areas across the country.

The Federal Government's AusAID program and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons provide substantial financial backing and extra funds are raised by supporters mainly in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland.

The surgeons work in the capital Dili and the second-largest town of Baucau, and have expanded at the request of East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao into the remote outpost of Oecussi.

A tiny area of land populated by 60,000 East Timorese people, Oecussi is surrounded on three sides by West Timor and bore the brunt of military-backed violence in 1999.

MELBOURNE surgeon Mark Ellis is removing a cataract in the Oecussi hospital when the generator and power go off.

Two colleagues come to his aid and stand over him with torches while he finishes the delicate procedure by torchlight.

The ophthalmologist from the Hawthorn Eye Clinic, 49, has volunteered twice in Oecussi and says he has formed a lasting bond with the place.

Ellis says he had wanted to do mission work in the developing world and collared the co-ordinator of the East Timor Eye Program, Tasmanian eye surgeon Nitin Verma, at a conference.

"I said, 'How do I do it? I'll pay my own way'."

Verma took him up on his offer and sent him to Oecussi.

A giant Russian helicopter delivers the eye team to Oecussi, dropping them and their medical supplies off at the airstrip just outside regional capital Pante Macassar.

The local hospital is poor and rundown, but clean and staffed by dedicated, hard-working people who make a little go a long way.

The heat is so intense the optometrists work barefoot, preferring the cool tiles as they set about examining the hundreds of people who have come to the clinic.

The doctors and nurses set up a makeshift operating room nearby.

There is no door to the operating theatre because termites have eaten away the door frame. The drip is attached to a rusty pole, cemented into an old food can.

Ellis works with the optometrists in their clinic before donning a sterile gown and joining McKnight in the theatre.

"We're talking about people who can't see the food on their plates, who can't see their way out the door," Ellis says.

"The care that's needed can be given in an extended family but in East Timor so many people have been killed off."

Ellis says the highlight for him is taking the bandage off the eye of a person who has been blinded by cataracts and helping them to see.

"It's highly emotional, the smiles when that bandage comes off," he says. "We had one guy who had his cataract out and he could see again.

"He was so happy he came back every day and led the patients in."

WHILE the East Timor Eye Program does have sponsors, it is run on a tight budget. In Oecussi, that means rudimentary accommodation and food and regular bouts of gastric upsets.

An optometrist loses his watch when a rat steals it in the night.

It is found days later in a corner, the leather band gnawed away.

Another wakes to find a goat has eaten his toothbrush.

"I sweat over there just thinking how good it would be to be home," Ellis says.

"On returning to Australia it is only a matter of time that I want to be back. Their need is greater."

The International Centre for Eye Care Education has seven local eye nurses in training, while the doctors are training Marcellino Correa as the first East Timorese-born eye surgeon.

They dream of one day having two doctors and are directing their fundraising efforts towards training and equipping local doctors.

"We turned our backs on East Timor in the '70s when they needed us and this almost feels like a way of saying sorry," Ellis says.

"These people are desperately in need of any good care.

"What's more, they are very appreciative of our efforts.

"I am conscious of our turning a blind eye during their struggles for independence. This is a way of giving back to those who helped us in World War II."

East Timor President Xanana Gusmao will visit Australia to raise funds for the East Timor Eye Program. He will attend a fundraising cocktail function at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Spring St, on Friday. To make a donation or to attend the function, call toll-free 1800 051 333.


The Courier Mail (Queensland, Australia)

July 2, 2005 Saturday

Gusmao to promote sight-saving efforts

EAST Timorese president Xanana Gusmao will arrive in Australia on Sunday for a week-long official tour that coincides with efforts to raise $200,000 to help treat curable blindness in his country.

Up to 10,000 East Timorese have lost their sight because of cataracts which could be removed with basic surgery.

Mr Gusmao, pictured, will use part of his visit to promote work by Australia's East Timor Eye Program.

The program's founder, eye surgeon Nitin Verma, has regularly travelled to East Timor with a team of doctors drawn from across Australia to save the sight of 2200 Timorese.

Dr Verma said the monies would help purchase supplies and continue the training of East Timor's first local eye surgeon.

President Gusmao, and his wife Kirsty, will visit Hobart, Canberra, the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

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