A KIWI’S Gift of Sight

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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...

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