Gift of Sight
Kiwi eye doctor Fred Hollows was a tenacious, outspoken humanitarian who pushed for change and tackled injustice head on. Fred didn’t believe in charity. He believed in empowering people to help themselves. Fred Hollows was appalled that people in developing countries go blind from easily treatable conditions. His dream was to make high quality and affordable eye care accessible for everyone, rich or poor. He worked tirelessly to restore sight to the needlessly blind and trained hundreds of eye doctors to do the same. Before he died, he set in motion an unstoppable legacy, inspiring thousands of people around the world to make his dream a reality. In the 1980s, Fred visited a number of developing countries including Eritrea and Nepal. He was shocked by the lack of medical resources and the prevalence of cataract blindness, an easily treatable condition. The unfairness of it all sparked Fred’s indignation. Determined everyone should have access to eye care no matter where they lived, he dedicated the rest of his life to bringing down the cost of cataract surgery. He began by lobbying the multi-national manufacturers of intraocular lenses (IOLs), the tiny but hugely expensive plastic lens used in cataract surgery. They refused to drop their prices, but Fred wasn’t going to let a multinational stand in his way. Determined to lower the cost of an IOL to less than $10, he came up with a bold new plan: he’d raise the money he needed to build his own IOL factories. And that’s exactly what he did. Fred believed training and empowering local people was the only way to bring about lasting change, and at the same time he trained hundreds of eye doctors to perform modern cataract surgery. In the last few months of his life, despite his battle with cancer, he discharged himself from hospital to fly to Vietnam where he trained 300 Vietnamese eye specialists. He died in 1993 just over a year before his IOL factories opened in Eritrea and Nepal. Today, thanks to Fred, an IOL that used to cost $200 is just $5. A few months before his death, he and his wife Gabi set up The Fred Hollows Foundation to carry on his work. Today, Fred’s Foundation trains local people to deliver eye care in the developing world where four out of five people who are blind don’t need to be their conditions are treatable. The Foundation embodies the Kiwi values that made Fred so successful: tenacity, perseverance, ingenuity, and a willingness to rock the boat if that’s what it takes. This commitment to continuing Fred’s work has restored the sight of more than two million people globally. Like Fred, The Foundation works to prevent avoidable blindness and make eye care accessible for everyone. In Fred’s day, the biggest challenge was making cataract surgery affordable. Now one of the biggest challenges is training enough doctors and nurses to meet the need for eye care services across the developing world. Since 2002, The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ has been tackling avoidable blindness in the Pacific Islands. Inspired by Fred, they find innovative solutions to the unique challenges facing Pacific island communities. As well as combating the rapidly growing incidence of sight loss caused by diabetes, they face the ongoing challenge of reaching people in remote communities spread across hundreds of islands.
Like Fred, they know the only solution is to train local people, and in 2006 they established The Pacific Eye Institute in Suva, Fiji. Here they train doctors, nurses and health care workers to diagnose, refer and treat eye problems in their communities. Their ultimate goal is to train enough people to meet the need for eye care right across the Pacific. In the meantime, their surgical outreach team regularly travels to remote communities to restore sight and provide eye care services to those in need. People often travel from miles away to see the eye doctor, sometimes spending several days travelling on foot and by boat. Dr Mundi Qalo, the head of their outreach team, takes huge pleasure from his work. On a typical day he and his team restore sight to as many as 35 people, not stopping until the very last person in the queue has been seen. And his reward is priceless. When his patients realise they can see again they’re simply overwhelmed with joy. For some, it’s been many years since they’ve seen their loved ones. But ending avoidable blindness through medication, surgery, education, prevention and training doesn’t just give people their sight back. It helps lift entire families and communities out of poverty; because with sight comes independence and the ability to return to work or go back to school. And what’s staggering is that often all it takes to restore sight is a 20 minute cataract operation - one of the most cost-effective health interventions on the planet according to the World Health Organisation. For others, it’s as simple as finally having a pair of properly prescribed glasses, getting treatment for an eye infection, or having laser surgery to halt sight loss caused by diabetes. Kiwi eye doctor Fred Hollow’s literally inspired thousands of people around the world to carry on his work, including hundreds of passionate eye health workers right here in the Pacific. You too can help keep this very special Kiwi eye doctor’s dream alive and put an end to avoidable blindness. Just $25 can restore sight. To find out more and make a donation visit hollows.org.nz
ABOVE: Ophthalmologist and outreach team leader Dr Mundi Qalo (second from right) loves his job. “Even if I work until late at night, I know that tomorrow I will have the reward of seeing families hugging, smiling and crying with joy.” BELOW: The late Professor Fred Hollows