Subject: Volunteers bring gift of better vision to the people of East Timor

Herald Sun (Australia)

December 30, 2006

Sight unseen

Ellen Smith

Volunteers are bringing the gift of better vision to the people of East Timor, writes Ellen Smith

IT'S 9am in mid-September, Oecussi, East Timor. Chickens are clucking, a dog is asleep and about 50 people are patiently waiting outside what looks like a World War II-era army tent.

Inside two Australian optometrists, unpaid and on their annual leave, are sweating under the heavy canvas in the mid-30C heat. The milky eyes of many of the people waiting outside the tent are a giveaway of what's going on inside.

Many of the patients have travelled from outlying areas for the East Timor Eye Programs clinic.

Many are farmers. There are even a couple of nuns.

A local helper writes patients' names and their often-guessed ages on a piece of paper as they wait with groups of family members until their turn to see Dr Matan, or the eye doctor.

This is day three of the program's five-day stint in the nation's most isolated district.

By the time they leave, the six-person team of optometrists, ophthalmologists (eye surgeons) and specialist nurses will have seen 230 patients, provided 131 pairs of glasses and completed 55 operations of various forms, but mainly for cataracts.

A different team of volunteers worked the previous week in Dili's Hospital Nacional. Outside the operating theatre UN tents cover part of the hospital grounds, a refugee centre for hospital staff and others caught in the most recent outbreak of violence.

Opthalmic nurse Colleen Hickson is on her first trip to East Timor.

It is everything she thought it would be, but she is still struck by the no-fuss attitudes of her patients, who wait several hours for their 20-minute operations before going home.

They return the next morning for the bandage to be taken off and are fitted with sunglasses -- out-of-season stock provided by a couple of high-end designer brands. The sunglasses protect ultra-sensitive eyes from sun and wind after the surgery.

Patients pay a small fee for their reading glasses, which helps insure they are valued and looked after. They do not have to pay for their consultations or surgery.

Eye health has long been neglected in this poor and troubled new nation. Thousands of people suffer from treatable conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma.

Many people simply need glasses. The program has been sending Australian volunteer eye specialists to various parts of East Timor since 2001, as well as training the country's first opthalmologist, Dr Marcellino Correia.

Back in Oecussi, the team is finishing removing bandages from patients who had been operated on the day before.

The program's founder opthalmologist, Dr Nitin Verma, appears, beaming, holding a small pink flower -- a gift from a grateful patient.

A cataract operation costs $100 and a pair of glasses $5. To help, visit 

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