Flying over the sugar cane fields of Vanua Levi the team came into land at Labasa airport greeted with 26°C and a very warm welcome from the Labasa Lions Club.
Our team consisted of ophthalmologists Rebecca Stack, Genevieve Oliver, ophthalmic nurse Marie Taylor, optometrists Michael Brown, Ravi Dass, Marika Fiolitakis, Karen Moulton and myself as well as New Zealand Lions members Neil Pugh and Jennie Vowles.
From the airport we went straight to Labasa hospital where the optometry team delivered our supplies, set up testing stations and a glasses dispensary, while the surgical team went up to Labasa surgical suite to unpack supplies and get the lay of the land.
Monday morning we broke into action. Michael, Marika and Karen started refraction and screening stations while Jennie manned the dispensary table dishing out the prescriptions. In the theatres the team adapted to performing small incision cataract surgery in a foreign environment; dealing with white cataracts, a black cataract and an Argentine Flag all on the first day. Ravi, Neil and I went out to Coqeloa health centre taking our services to those who couldn’t travel to Labasa. Each day a pair from our team went to a different village’s medical centre.
After work each day we were treated to dinner by Labasa lions as well as the hospital board and the Labasa Rotary club. During the week Michael also arranged interesting tours through a sugar cane and a plywood factory.
After a busy week we were looking forward to a weekend getaway to Savusavu. We spent the weekend in the markets, looking around the town, exploring the resorts, a snorkelling trip and topped off with an epic Super15 final. A well needed weekend to recover before getting back into it.
The last week went way too quickly and I was staggered to hear that we’d performed 2370 eye screenings and over 2000 glasses were distributed. The surgical team performed 77 procedures including 73 cataract removals and a penetrating eye injury.
Labasa hospital has improved immensely from what I had been told to expect and this is testament to the hard work of the team there led by the local ophthalmologist Dr Uggi.
It was an amazing experience and the VOSO team were humbled by the hospitality of the Labasa Lions. We all worked hard throughout the trip, had interesting interdisciplinary chats and had a great time socially. I am keen to return in the future and would recommend it to all.
Two New Zealand optometrists recently returned from Samoa volunteering with Vision NZ. John Tarbutt (Cambridge) and Jane Ludemann (Wellington) spent a fortnight travelling around health clinics on Savaii and Upoli. They were gratefully assisted by the only Samoan optometrist, Auckland trained Erna Takazawa, and two excellent Fiji trained ophthalmic nurses on each island. It was at least John’s tenth trip to Samoa and Jane’s first.
The first week concentrated on screening for cataract and pterygium surgery for the Pacific Eye Institute team arriving the following week. The second week concentrated on identifying diabetic retinopathy requiring treatment – of which there was a lot. With no access to Avastin, laser is the mainstay of treatment. All in all around 750 patients were seen, about that many glasses distributed (95% of which were for hyperopia/presbyopia) and at least 200 referrals were made. Overall it was a highly productive and satisfying trip.
MEDIA RELEASEDr David Pendergrast, an ophthalmologist at Auckland Eye is heading to the Solomon Islands to learn a new cataract surgery technique that will deliver first world results to patients in developing countries.
An Auckland eye surgeon is heading to the Solomon Islands to learn a new cataract surgery technique that will deliver first world results to patients in developing countries.
Dr David Pendergrast, an ophthalmologist at Auckland Eye, says his two-week trip to the Solomon Islands in September will enable him to perform hundreds of sight-saving cataract removal surgeries in developing nations.
“I’ll be learning a new technique that is better for developing countries as it takes less time, costs less, and has very good results,” explains Dr Pendergrast. “It will essentially give first world results for third world patients.”
The doctor has previously travelled to Papua New Guinea to perform hundreds of volunteer cataract removal surgeries, and says the impact they have on people’s lives is immense.
“It’s really satisfying work. People come in with cataracts from quite an early age in places like Papua New Guinea, from just 40 years old in some cases,” he says. “One 40-year-old man I saw had been totally blind from bilateral cataracts (meaning cataracts in both eyes) for five years, and had to be led around by a child for that entire time. But we were able to restore his vision.”
Dr Pendergrast says he gets many different reactions from patients in developing nations who have cataracts removed. “Some people are absolutely overtly delighted and you tend to get blessed a lot. Some are very shy, but you know it has taken them four hours to walk – being led by someone – to get to the clinic, and they’ll be able to walk back on their own, which is life-changing.”
While an older technique called extra-capsular cataract extraction has been used up till now in many places that receive voluntary specialist help from New Zealand surgeons, Dr Pendergrast says the new procedure – named manual small incision cataract extraction – will ultimately be better for patients as it requires fewer sutures and has a quicker recovery time.
The leading eye surgeon will learn the new procedure from fellow eye specialists working in the Solomon Islands’ capital Honiara with the support of the Fred Hollows Foundation.
He will go on to use this sight saving operation in Taveuni, Fiji, in November on a trip funded by the Rotary Club of Taveuni.
MARK TAYLOR/Fairfax NZ
A lack of eye care in South Pacific nations like Tonga means a high number of locals suffer from preventable blindness and other vision disorders. VOSO is combating the plight by sending volunteer New Zealand eye specialists to restore sight to those in need.
Plenty of New Zealanders will have heard of the Fred Hollows Foundation.
However, few outside of the eye health industry will be familiar with Voso, a smaller organisation also striving to restore sight to those faced with barriers like distance and poverty.
Volunteer Ophthalmic Services Overseas - to give Voso its full name - is a joint project of New Zealand optometrists and ophthalmologists run as a charitable trust, which sends on average six teams a year to various South Pacific destinations.
Their mission: To help eradicate preventable blindness with surgery, the examination and treatment of people in need of eye care and supplying those who need them with glasses and sunglasses.
Over two weeks each team screens around 1500 patients and performs 60 to 80 cataract operations, typically on patients who are totally blind.
"It's true we have a very low profile, but we are quite well known in the profession," says optometrist and Voso board member Ravi Dass, who was part of a five-man team who visited Tonga in October, accompanied by Waikato Times photographer Mark Taylor.
"We do have the same goals as the Fred Hollows Foundation. The Fred Hollows guys work to a fairly stringent business model to get what they have to do done. We try to work in collaboration with them, because we both have the same goals. It would be silly not to.
"We are a smaller, less well-advanced version of what they are. Their focus is on surgery. Ours is on surgery and glasses. When they head out to one of the Islands they take a shipping container full of advanced equipment with them. We basically just take ourselves.
"But on the other hand we do probably have less administrative costs. Any money we are donated or bequeathed goes straight into funding one of these trips."
Ravi Dass was invited to join VOSO by chairman Richard Johnson, whom he previously worked with in Wellington.
"He suggested I go along on some of the volunteer trips. It was also useful that I was from Fiji - I got out at the time of the first coup [in 1988] - and can speak Hindi."
While there were just as many cases of eye disease in the Islands as there were in other countries, the difference between there and places like New Zealand was in the availability of follow-up services for those being treated, he said.
"No one really relates sunglasses to eye damage and conditions like cataracts. Prevention really is the key," he said.
Dr Dass has now made eight trips to the Islands over the past 10 years.
"It's just a really nice thing to do for people. There's always something fun that happens or something really rewarding. On this last trip there were a couple of kids who we helped fix up for frames and lenses and that was really good to see what they got out of it. I guess I'm naturally drawn to that side of things."