Outback group has sights on clear vision

Grandmother Mavis Arnott saw her granddaughter Brianna for the first time in Port Hedland this month.

Brianna, 14, is no newborn but until this month's cataract surgery 75-year-old Ms Arnott was blind.

Post-surgery, the Martu woman, of Jigalong, about 500km out of Port Hedland, had normal vision in one eye. Brianna's face was no longer a shadowed mystery.

Jimmy Williams travelled even further for his cataract surgery. He came from the remote community of Parnngurr - 10 hours in the car, with half of that on an unsealed dirt track.

The 67-year-old wanted the dense cataract removed from his right eye in part so he could continue to hunt for the kangaroo and bush turkey that make up part of his traditional diet.

"I'm feeling good, you know," Mr Williams said. "I want to get better so I can see everything."

Ms Arnott and Mr Williams owe their sight to Lions Outback Vision, a group established by the Lions Eye Institute and the University of WA four years ago in the face of statistics that show Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are six times more likely than other Australians to go blind.

More than 90 per cent of that vision loss is preventable or treatable.

Lions Outback director and ophthalmologist Angus Turner, who performed the operations, said that the job was "fantastic".

"Patients who may have been blind in both eyes have a short procedure that doesn't cause pain and then the next day they can see their children and grandchildren," Dr Turner said. "It's just great to be part of that."

Less immediately gratifying but equally important was treating conditions such as diabetic retinopathy, which causes blindness if not identified in time but has few symptoms.

This year Lions Outback has done things a little differently.

First, it has been testing telehealth services to connect patients to optometry clinics via video conference.

Telehealth is not widely used for eye care because few GPs have the equipment to take photos of the front and back of the eye but optometry is not covered by Medicare - something Dr Turner will lobby to have changed.

Second, The Fred Hollows Foundation has joined the likes of the McCusker Foundation and the RANZCO Eye Foundation as a supporter, funding a senior registrar to join the group's outreach programs for a year.

The group spent the first two weeks of this month in the Pilbara, where a steady stream of Aboriginal patients walked through the door.

Some like Dennis Jefferies, a 57-year-old council worker in Jigalong, had multiple problems, including diabetic retinopathy and a blinding cataract in one eye.

"I waited too long but the right people came and took me now," Mr Jefferies said.

For others such as Mitchell Biljaba Jangala, a former teacher in Punmu for 20 years, it was not the first visit.

The 59-year-old, who previously had laser treatment, made the latest trip for an ophthalmology assessment to stay on top of his diabetic retinopathy.

"It's very important because I've got to see my grandkids, my daughters grow up," he said.

He saw many with similar problems. "There are chances for us now," he said

Senior registrar Hessom Razavi, whose role is funded by The Fred Hollows Foundation, said the experience was incredibly rewarding.

"There was one lady who had a very dense cataract in one eye and she went from being blind in that eye to having 20-20 vision and we spent 20 minutes talking the next day because she was just astounded," Dr Razavi said.

"We try to make it a similar service to what you get in the city, to deliver metropolitan eye care to people in the country who might not otherwise have access to it."

The foundation has a history in WA. Fred Hollows visited in the 1970s to tackle trachoma, still the fourth leading cause of blindness for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

The outreach programs can have a ripple effect, changing the life not just of one person but also a community.

That is true for Yanjami Peter Rowlands, whose deteriorating long-distance sight and diabetes-related conditions were inhibiting his work teaching Martu rangers and young people.

The combination of laser treatment and a pair of glasses that should arrive within weeks are expected to give him excellent vision.

"I can now go out . . . show the country to ranger boys and young people," Mr Rowlands said. "We go together, boys and girls."


For more information on The Fred Hollows Foundation

The West Australian

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