Auckland Eye specialist Dr David Pendergrast has recently returned from a voluntary trip helping with the Taveuni Eye Project in Fiji. This is an annual Eye Surgery Programme providing removal of Cataracts and Pterygia for Fijians in remote villages and islands who could otherwise not afford the travel and accommodation costs.
The Rotary Club of Taveuni (RCTI) organises the transport from their village, which is often incredibly long and arduous. From the most remote villages it may mean travelling on a bus to the ferry, then a ferry trip of up to 12 hours, and finally a Rotary van from the wharf on Taveuni up to the local accommodation provided in the hospital or church or school.
The patients all sleep on mattresses in the hospital and on the post op day the patients with eye patches on are sitting in rows on chairs watched by others who have either already had their surgery or are awaiting surgery the next day. The local Rotary team also provides food for the patients including hundreds of kilos of taro, sacks of rice, and lots of sugar for their tea.
The Taveuni Project has been going for 11 years now and the team includes a great mix of locals and New Zealanders. Ineke Van Laar from Tauranga has been the very efficient organiser for the nursing and theatre side, and the transport, logistics and food is organised by Michael Prasad who is a tireless and enthusiastic local businessman. He sits at the hub of the clinic area and makes sure we all have enough to do. We have learned to never believe Michael when he says “only another 4 more cases and we are finished for the day". Somehow he always manages to fill the day up to the brim.
The leader of the surgical team is Dr Jeff Rutgard, an American surgeon from San Diego, who has been operating in Taveuni since the project started. He will often bring a junior surgeon (either a fellow or new consultant level).
In addition, many instrument and surgical supply companies have also assisted, this year we had the benefit of two beautiful operating microscopes supplied by Zeiss, one at minimal cost, one donated. They were very much appreciated.
Anyone who has gone on a trip like this , which is generally organised through the Volunteer Ophthalmic Services Overseas (VOSO), will understand the satisfaction of helping people who are often severely visually impaired, and otherwise would not have access to treatment. The faces of the patients on the post op day, their thanks and the beautiful singing that always seems to follow, especially on the final day, makes all the hard work more than worthwhile.
However, there is always the frustration of those difficult cases as well, which show the limitations of treatment options and ongoing access to medication in Fiji. There are no vitreo-retinal services in Taveuni and even simple things like intra ocular inflammation or glaucoma may not get adequate or indeed any treatment once the team leaves.
Dr Jeff however, was impressed that in New Zealand there is such a strong tradition of voluntary surgery, with significant numbers of surgeons regularly participating in VOSO or similar trips as well as those who work with Pacific Eye Institute or other organisations. Jeff said only a handful of US surgeons are interested in voluntary surgery.
The team at Auckland Eye is committed to providing ophthalmic support to our neighbouring developing countries. To read more about the volunteer work our doctors undertake take a look at our Philanthropy page.