Subject: Gift of sight from Aussie eye team

Sunday Tasmanian (Australia)

May 18, 2003 Sunday

Gift of sight from Aussie eye team


THE wizened old man squints as Tasmanian eye surgeon Nitin Verma peels a bandage away from his weathered face, exposing his eye.

The man, a villager from one of East Timor's highland communities, blinks several times then laughs with joy.

Throwing his arms around Dr Verma's waist, he laughs some more, kissing and shaking the doctor's hand.

Then he walks away, unassisted for the first time in years.

Another 20-minute miracle has been performed. A blind man can see.

Dr Verma grins after him, then turns his attention to the next man sitting in the crowded room, a bandage over his eye.

"That's why we do it," the Hobart-based ophthalmologist says. He is in East Timor leading a team of volunteer Australian eye-care professionals and a moment like this is welcome respite in a frantic week which in which more than 150 people will undergo surgery for the removal of 161 cataracts. An amazing 3300 will be examined by a group of Aussie optometrists and will be issued with prescription glasses.

Outside the door, about 1000 people have gathered. They are prepared to wait for hours, in 35C heat and 90 per cent humidity, for a chance to be examined by the Australian eye team. Some have travelled for days to be there.

obscuring vision.

They take less than 20 minutes to remove but as East Timor struggles with its new independence, there is no local expertise or money to conduct the surgery. Those who grow cataracts simply go blind.

In a country which has no welfare system, the blind can become a major burden for families struggling to survive.

Every six months, an Australian team visits the East Timor capital, Dili.

The program is entirely based on the work of volunteers. The surgeons leave their busy practices; nurses and optometrists take annual leave.

Then, from rudimentary rooms at the Dili Nacional Hospital, they roll up their sleeves and set about providing life-changing eye-care for as many for East Timor's 850,00 residents as they can.

Dr Verma, a 45-year-old surgeon, started the program three years ago, when he was based in Darwin.

He visited East Timor after the Indonesians pulled out in 1999, taking their entire public health system with them.

"It was Easter 2000 and some people told me there was a real need for an eye service in Dili so I bought a ticket and came on the Monday," Dr Verma said.

At the time, the Dili hospital was under the administration of the Red Cross, which was trying to fill the vacuum left when the Indonesians pulled out after 25 years of occupation.

The country was torn by poverty and violence, and Dr Verma saw people whose eyesight was impaired by cataracts, trauma and poor hygiene.

Alarmingly, many children were blind from vitamin A deficiencies, a condition which strikes children who are suffering from life-threatening diarrhoea.

The condition can be avoided if children receive vitamin supplements.

"Basically these children get sick and they either die or, if they survive, they have the effects of vitamin A deficiency which includes blindness," Dr Verma said.

In adults, the main problem is cataracts.

"I told the people from the Red Cross that if they provided the place, we would come and provide the service," Dr Verma said.

Since then, he has gathered together teams of eye-care professionals from around Australia for the visits. The optometrists hand out prescription glasses to those whose vision can be improved so simply.

Others are sent to the team of surgeons, who line up in an operating theatre which has three patients on three beds.

The optometrists fly to East Timor a week before the surgeons, driving to the districts and examining patients, helping those with cataracts prepare for the journey to Dili.

The program is no-frills and no-nonsense. Every dollar raised from donors and sponsors is spent on the patients. There are no administration costs.

AusAid and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons financially support the program, and Dr Verma, who moved to Hobart last year, cajoles special deals out of medical companies.

East Timor's Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and President Xanana Gusmao have visited the hospital to see the work.

This month, Dr Verma was joined in Dili by surgeons John Kearney and Bill Glasson and nurses Allison Wilkinson and Margaret Baltais, all from Queensland.

Registrar Christine Younan, based in Sydney but on a three-month secondment to Darwin, also joined the team, along with a Tasmanian nurse who specialises in ophthalmics and works with Dr Verma in Hobart, Helen Taylor.

Dr Kearney, Dr Verma and Ms Wilkinson are the core team members.

Ms Taylor has loads of experience working in third-world medicine, having served 18 months aboard Orbis, a donated DC-10 aircraft fitted out as an operating theatre and teaching hospital which visited places such as Armenia, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Ethiopia.

cradling a tiny, distressed little girl.

The child is blind with cataracts in both eyes, but was ill with a fever and could not be operated on this visit.

"She would never even have seen her mother," Ms Taylor said.

The team will remove at least one of the child's cataracts when they return to Dili in July.

Ms Taylor said it was an "amazing reward" to restore sight to a person blinded by cataracts.

"It takes only 20 minutes and we can give them something so precious," she said.

"Once the grapevine gets going and they know we are in town, some people walk two days to see us.

"We can't turn them away."

Dr Verma always carries a torch in his pocket and has examined people in the hospital grounds and corridors as they approached him.

As a 28-year-old doctor in his home city of New Delhi, he remembers his grandmother telling him he must do something with his talent.

"My granny is now 92 and I remember her saying it was easy to hang on to the things we were given but difficult to let things go," he said.

"We must always try to open our hand and give."

Plea for vital donations

THE Australian volunteer eye program needs members of the public and corporate donors to give.

The team hopes to increase the number of cataract removals in its next visit to 200 and see several thousand out-patients.

Anyone who can donate may call the Red Cross on 6235 6077, or send cheques to GPO Box 211, Hobart, 7001. Old sunglasses and reading glasses are also welcome.

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