By Patrick McMillan
BOptom, University of Melbourne 2011
I had always wanted to do some volunteer optometry work, so I jumped at the opportunity to go on an aid mission to Vanuatu that was advertised in Australian Optometry.
After graduating I had moved to country Victoria where I practised for nearly two years, then took time off to travel before moving back to Melbourne, where I now work at a busy Specsavers practice in Werribee.
Prior to the establishment of the Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness project, basic primary eye care was not available outside Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. This meant that large numbers of people were unable to see, often for want of a simple pair of glasses. Many others had eye conditions that were completely undiagnosed and untreated.
The medical teams are transported to the remote islands by plane, and sometimes by yacht courtesy of Rob Latimer and Medical Sailing Ministries.
There was tremendous satisfaction in helping the people of the outer islands of Vanuatu. While there were local nurses with first aid and limited medical knowledge, some villages we visited had apparently not had a doctor or other health professional visit for up to five years.
Our team of dentists, doctor and optometrist were greatly appreciated. We also had with us a native Vanuatu apprentice optometrist and apprentice dentist, both of whom had visited Australia to receive a month of training at the ACO and a Melbourne dental college, and accompanied the aid missions as part of their training.
Examining a Ni-Van patient
The main part of our optometry work was refraction. We had a supply of donated, pre-made glasses in 0.50 steps from -3.00 D to +4.00 D, so we dispensed the closest prescription available. Correcting refractive error in these villagers is simple but very rewarding. Higher prescriptions and astigmatic errors are rare; the few cases I saw had to have glasses made in Fiji, sent to the main island and then delivered to the outer islands.
We also diagnosed people with treatable eye disease, mainly cataracts and pterygium, and gave them the information they needed to travel to the main island where volunteer ophthalmologists rotate every month or two.
Unfortunately, there were also cases that could not be treated. There were unusual corneal conditions and scarring, probably from previous infections, and some children with best corrected acuities of 6/24 for no apparent reason.
Clearly, there is an enormous amount of work that still needs to be done. An even more important part of my work was assisting with the training of the local optometry apprentice, teaching him as much as I could so that he can be part of the future of self-sustaining Vanuatu optometry.
Escaping the modern fast-paced, technology-focused lifestyle was very refreshing. With no technology and limited generator electricity, life was simple and stress-free. It also makes you appreciate all the things back home that we too easily take for granted.
If you have an interest in helping people less fortunate than yourself and doing your part in bringing sight to the world, I highly recommend volunteering for an aid mission such as the Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness Project.
To learn more about the Vanuatu Blindness Project, visit the Medical Sailing Ministries website.