Subject: SMH: All eyes on sight saviours in rush for help in E.Timor

Sydney Morning Herald July 25, 2000

All eyes on sight saviours in rush for help

By MARK DODD, Herald Correspondent in Dili

It is 8am and despite the heat and the dust, more than 500 East Timorese are already queuing patiently at the small clinic on Dili's outskirts, waiting for a rare opportunity to get specialist eye care from a visiting medical team from the US Navy.

"This is pretty much a normal size crowd," says a Navy public affairs officer, Captain Denise Shorb. "We were really overwhelmed on the first couple of days. They [Timorese] did not want to leave the line or go to lunch, thinking they'd lose their place in the queue, so we put up a tent to provide some shade.

"Typically every morning there has been about 500 people. They [the medical team] try and do as much as they can - take the prescriptions and tell them to come back to collect their new glasses."

The seven-man medical team, in East Timor for two weeks, is divided into a surgical unit performing up to 20 cataract removals a day, an optometrist responsible for prescription glasses, and two technicians grinding and fitting lenses.

Patient numbers have shown no sign of easing. Since setting up in Dili 10 days ago, the clinic has treated more than 1,400 patients, performed more than 50 cataract removals and given away almost 1,000 sets of glasses.

"We brought enough lenses to make 2,000 pairs of glasses but we are ordering more - 600 from Sydney, and from the naval hospital in Guam, 400 lenses to make more glasses," said Lieutenant Brian Hatch, a specialist in ocular pathology.

He thought about 15 per cent of East Timorese had some form of cataracts, abnormal tissue growth, eyelid problems, corneal scars or traumatic injuries.

One man seeking help had an arrow shot in his eye.

Lieutenant Hatch said the high incidence of cataracts was because of prolonged exposure to the sun compounded by pollution, such as smoke and dust.

"Typically, most of my patients are between 40 and 80 years old. There are not many young kids and I've been surprised at the number of reading glasses needed," he said.

Scant provision was made for eye-care specialists in East Timor under the territory's former colonial powers, Portugal and Indonesia, with only the wealthy able to afford adequate medical care.

Hospital Corpsman Anthony Matthews, from the Naval School of Health Sciences in San Diego, said that although hundreds of Timorese had received free treatment, he was concerned about the eye care of thousands of others whose impaired vision remained untreated and who had been unable to travel to Dili.

"We had one older guy come in," he said. "Once we got rid of his cataract, he leapt off his chair, saluted the doc, then gave him a great big hug."

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