A week in Fiji sounds very appealing in mid-winter, but a VOSO trip is no picnic in the sun, although there was a bit of that as well. The Labasa Lions Club hosted us and provided local food at every village for lunch and restaurant dinners every night back in Labasa. Each day was well organised with transport, distribution of bottled water and a plan of where we were to go.
Each day teams of two optometrists, one nurse and a driver would drive for about two hours, a lot of it over rough dirt roads to reach outlying villages. On arrival, there would already be a large group of locals sitting waiting. Some had walked for three hours to reach the school or heath centre. They were seen first so they could start their long walk home again. The nurse would do other health checks such as blood pressure or child health checks or would do visual acuity for the optometrists.
For the last three days, one team stayed at Labasa hospital and I was able to see 19 low vision patients with an age range of 5 – 90 years old, while teaching Noa, the Community Rehabilitation Liaison Officer and Nari, an experienced and equally devoted ophthalmic nurse, as much as I could about assessing and helping patients with low vision. Both are very passionate about the work they do, and it was a real joy to work with them. I hope to keep in contact and continue to support them as much as I can.
A real light bulb moment occurred when Noa and I realised that he is working with many children who have been operated for congenital cataracts and have no reading glasses to help them with their school work. He also has several girls with Albinism on his books and I was able to give him some small sunglasses for them, as they do not have any at present.
The majority of the work we did as a team was providing reading glasses, though we were surprised at the large number of hypermetropes who needed distance glasses as well. On the first day we had no high plus glasses amongst the spectacles collected by Lions Clubs from New Zealand. One just had to improvise and give one pair for distance and a second pair to wear one on top of the other for reading. Not unexpectedly, we found a lot of pterygia and were also able to provide sunglasses for protection. Sadly, the word has gotten around that the VOSO teams from New Zealand have previously given out sunglasses, and many people who could well afford to buy glasses from the local optometrist (Indian trained) or pharmacy were approaching us, sometimes in the street, for their free sunglasses. Apparently, sunglasses and spectacles for distance is something of a status symbol. The traditional culture of the village is that one does not wear a hat or any glasses including sunglasses in the village, as it is considered an offense to the village chief that you are trying to place yourself above him.
The VOSO team agreed that the emphasis on future visits to Labasa should be on the outreach to the villages providing screening, spectacles and sunglasses to the population that need it most. On the other hand, the low vision part worked well from out of Labasa hospital. In total, the four optometrists Jill Mottram (team leader) Olga Hammond, John Mellsop and I, saw 950 patients of which 40 were referred to the hospital mainly for cataracts and pterygia, as well as 19 low vision patients.
It was a truly rewarding experience particularly helping people who have never had any eye health checks, have no access to spectacles or have never seen a magnifier before, and a privilege to work with such dedicated people; my colleagues, the Labasa hospital team and the small but very active Labasa Lions Club.
VOSO would like to acknowledge with thanks the assistance and donations of low vision aids and equipment from:
Jennie Vowles – Lions Club Karori Neil Pugh – Lions Club Ferrymead
Milburne & Neill Optometrists Mike Sladen Optical
Pacific Vision Eyeline Optical
Greenlane Low Vision Clinic Blind Foundation and members
Jenny Carpenter Viv Gapes
Sr Isabelle – Kaikohe Shirley McMurray
Nancye Carter’s family Mrs Sally Fraser
Essilor NZ Ltd