Subject: Eye team brings hope: Tasmanians reach wilds of Timor

Sunday Tasmanian

Eye team brings hope: Tasmanians reach wilds of Timor

By ELLEN WHINNETT

21mar04

A TASMANIAN-LED team of medical volunteers has made it to the remote community of Oecussi, an isolated East Timorese enclave in Indonesian West Timor.

Hobart eye surgeon Nitin Verma led the team into Oecussi on Friday, March 12, after being flown to the area by the UN.

The decision to visit the enclave, a severely disadvantaged community of about 47,000 people, came after a direct request from the president of East Timor, Xanana Gusmao.

Mr Gusmao expressed concern that the isolated residents were unable to make the 14-hour ferry journey to Dili to seek the specialised eye surgery provided by the Tasmanian volunteers.

East Timor has been left without specialised medical services since it seceded from Indonesia in 1999, a move which sparked massive bloodshed and militia violence.

Oecussi bore the brunt of the Indonesian-sponsored militia violence, and is still struggling to recover.

Surrounded on three sides by West Timor, the enclave has been closed off from its support networks because of border restrictions, and the breakdown of the Dili ferry.

Dr Verma and Queensland ophthalmologist John Kearney visited the local hospital to examine the facilities and decided to organise a medical mission to the enclave in July.

"The eye health situation in Oecussi is very bad, as it is now cut off," Dr Verma said.

At the time of the visit, a dispute over border passes had seen the border with West Timor closed for six weeks, meaning even vital supplies such as fuel for vehicles and generators had been cut off.

AusAID and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons funds the eye program, which works from the main hospital in Dili. However, surgical work is yet to be attempted in outlying regions.

The Deputy Force Commander of the United Nation's Peace Keeping Force, Brigadier-General Paul Retter, flew the inspection team into Oecussi in an Mi8 helicopter last week.

Dr Verma said a medical mission would be a difficult task to organise, and he hoped the UN would again be able to assist.

Up to a tonne of equipment including water, microscopes, eye glasses, inter-ocular lenses and medical supplies would need to be flown in.

Dr Verma said the eye team would conduct eye examinations, prescribe glasses where appropriate, give advice on eye health and Vitamin A deficiencies, and perform sight-restoring cataract surgeries.

The program would form part of

a medical mission which has seen more than 1400 cataract operations performed in Dili since 2000 -- many of those on people who were profoundly blind.

During the visit to Oecussi, the eye team saw a woman walking unassisted outside the hospital, wearing sunglasses.

Recognising the sunglasses as part of a donation of 200 pairs of glasses made to the program by Longford woman Anita Williams last year, Dr Verma borrowed a night-scope from the pistol belonging to SAS bodyguard Rog.

Using the powerful light, Dr Verma was able to determine that the woman had been one of 18 blind people brought from Oecussi to Dili by the Catholic Church last year -- where she had undergone successful surgery to remove cataracts from both her eyes.

Dr Verma said there were many other patients in Oecussi in need of cataract surgery, but most stood no chance of ever making the journey to Dili.

"The patients seen outside the hospital were in need of ophthalmic attention, one was completely blind and the other two needed one eye operated on," he said.

"The hospital facilities were basic even compared with Dili, but we can fly in equipment to make up the shortfalls and start an operating theatre and eye clinic there.

"Logistically, it will be the most difficult trip where all supplies from water, food, gear and everything else will need to be helicoptered in but with the local people's support, and God's blessings, we will succeed."

- To make a tax-deductable donation, send a cheque to the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, College of Surgeons Gardens, Spring St, Victoria, 3000, and mark it to the attention of the East Timor Eye Program.


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