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Susie O’Neill is seeing life differently

Resource type: News

The Courier Mail (Australia) |

by Fiona Purdon

OLYMPIC swimming gold medallist Susie O’Neill and her ophthalmologist husband Cliff Fairley will never forget the unbridled joy and emotion from eye surgery recipients in Vietnam.

One grandmother’s reaction especially left an impression after O’Neill and Fairley were part of a Fred Hollows Foundation team that paid a house call several weeks after surgery.

“We met this lady in Vietnam, she had been fully blind with a cataract, she was housebound and the family had to look after her before surgery,” O’Neill says. “When we got to her house no one could find her, she was down feeding the pigs or tending the rice. She wanted to do her fair share of work now she could see again.

“She was so animated and very appreciative. Surgery can change lives, it’s amazing to what extent.”

O’Neill has been an ambassador for the Fred Hollows Foundation for more than eight years while Fairley’s foundation introduction was helping with the Eye Clinic Blitz at Alice Springs last November.

The couple’s involvement with the foundation, including the intensive week-long eye clinic, is the subject of tonight’s Australian Story on ABC Television.

Fairley says it was a huge privilege to work with Alice Springs resident doctor Tim Henderson and between them they treated 60 patients, mainly from remote indigenous Northern Territory communities, operating on cataracts and eyelid-scarring trachoma.

“`It’s rewarding work, it’s challenging work,” Fairley says. “It was just a little bit stressful, working in a strange environment with unfamiliar staff and unfamiliar equipment on difficult and high-risk cases.

“At times it seemed a little surreal. At one time I was operating on a difficult case and Susie is sitting next to me looking down a microscope. That was weird. I looked up and there were 15 people in the operating theatre with all the cameras and lighting for Australian Story.”

Fred Hollows Foundation managing director Brian Doolan says the association is in partnership with the Northern Territory Government, the Federal Government and the Aboriginal medical services for Central Australia with the short-term goal of three to four eye clinics a year. The long-term plan is for an eye health centre to be built at Alice SpringsHospital.

Doolan says that Fred Hollows began a life-long interest in Aboriginal health in the 1970s but the foundation was approached about three years ago to help with the backlog of operations.

About 340 operations have been performed since then.

O’Neill and Fairley praised the foundation’s role in the Central Australian Integrated Eye Health Program, which organises and co-ordinates accommodation and transport from remote communities. Fairley says that some patients had to endure a 28-hour return journey by bus from the Docker River community, on the West Australian and Northern Territory border.

He says many of the indigenous people could not speak English and had limited or no contact with the outside world. He says there were several dialects spoken by the Aborigines, who showed a shy and reserved appreciation.

“Many cases in Alice Springs are certainly a lot more advanced,” he says. “The degree of blindness out there you don’t see in Brisbane. It is not easy for them to get access to medical services.

“Some people have been needlessly legally blind for many years. A lot of these patients, their cataracts were so white that they could only see light and dark and limited movement. Most of them were seeing a lot better the next day. You could see their excitement.

“The service has become so popular that extra people hopped on the buses. They wanted to have their eyes done too.”

Doolan says that there are about 45 million people who are blind worldwide, 75 per cent of whom are needlessly blind and 90 per cent of whom live in the developing world. The majority are women.

The Fred Hollows Foundation was established in September 1992 before Hollows died in February 1993 and his widow, Gabi Hollows, became the foundation director.

Doolan says that in 2007 about 1.2 million eyes were examined and 143,759 eye operations were performed because of the foundation, which also trained 3284 eye doctors and nurses in 20 countries, including Pakistan, Vietnam, China and Cambodia. He says that two foundation factories (in Nepal and Eritrea) make plastic eye lenses.

“This is Fred’s dream,” he says. “When Fred was alive plastic lenses cost up to $250 each. Now they only cost $5 each and we can do an operation for about $US25 ($38).

“We don’t believe in sending Australian ophthalmologists overseas. We are training people in their own countries so they can become a sustainable part of the health system there.”

Doolan says O’Neill’s ambassador role is to create public awareness through media work, public and school visits and educational programs.

“Having a father who is an ophthalmologist, it has been a part of her life since she was a little girl,” he says. “Susie is a very genuine person and her role as an ambassador is to promote the foundation’s work. It’s a very precious gift.”

Following O’Neill’s gold medal success at the Sydney Olympics she was contacted by the foundation, one of many approaches from charities, but she had a natural affinity with Hollows’ work.

“I wanted to concentrate on one charity and give it my all,” she says. “My dad is an eye doctor and Cliff was studying to be one at the time.”

Last November was O’Neill’s second time in the Northern Territory while Vietnam was a profound experience in 2007, especially seeing up to 30 patients in one room waiting for operations.

“They were so excited the next day, they saw I was from the Fred Hollows Foundation and they thought I was a doctor so everyone was asking me to check their eye patches,” she says.

While her husband was operating in Alice Springs O’Neill undertook ambassador duties such as visiting the local indigenous school, going to the swim club and meeting traditional owners and savouring the rare experience of seeing her husband at work.

“It was really interesting seeing the operation. It’s more exciting watching it than what they let on,” she says.

Fairley also enjoyed working with O’Neill and is keen to help at a clinic again.

“I would do it again,” he says. “It would be easier next time, not having the camera crews. It was good to work together out there and hopefully help a few people.”

Related Resources



Global Impact:

Australia, Viet Nam


Fred Hollows Foundation, health care