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Vanuatu, where giving is receiving

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Nancy Chang finds the true value of her degree
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By Nancy Chang
BOptom, University of Auckland, 2009

 

I first heard of the Vanuatu Prevention of Blindness Project through a colleague who was one of the first optometrists to be involved with the project. It began about 15 years ago when Don and Meg MacRaild saw that there was a dire need for eye care in Vanuatu.

The project services remote villages that populate the 83 islands that make up Vanuatu. Each year, volunteer groups of Australian medical professionals travel to Vanuatu to conduct a series of clinics on the islands. Occasionally, when volunteer boats like the Chimere are available, the teams are taken from island to island aboard them, sometimes living in the villages and sometimes living aboard the boat.

The medical teams are made up of doctors, nurses, optometrists and local eye-care workers. One of the most rewarding aspects of the experience is that you get to work as a team with people of wildly different backgrounds and experiences, and daily draw knowledge and inspiration from them.

Optometrists work with Richard Tatwin, who has been the local co-ordinator of the Eye Care Project since 2001. Initially, Richard’s role was simply to provide the local knowledge that enabled the visiting medical teams to get to work in the various parts of the country. He soon picked up the basic skills of refractive testing of sight and as the demand was huge, he began to run regular clinics where he prescribes second-hand glasses.

So far I've been on seven outreach trips. Each trip is unique; you never know what to expect. As a health-care provider, you are challenged to leave your usual routine behind and adapt to whatever situation presents to you. You have to be creative and use your knowledge and the tools you have to help people, for example, explaining cataract and cataract surgery in a language that the Vanuatu locals, the Ni-Van, can understand.

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Nancy practicing her optometry skills

What I love the most about Vanuatu are the people. The Ni-Vans are some of the most friendly and genuine people on earth. They tell the funniest and most interesting life stories. Spending time with them helps put life into perspective for me, and seeing the way they live helps me appreciate the simplest pleasure of life.

As a volunteer, I have seen that many people in Vanuatu with vision impairment are simply unaware that their condition can be fixed by a pair of glasses or access to the right treatment.

It is such a privilege to be able to use my skills as an optometrist to help the Ni-Vans. The expressions on their faces when they get their eye sight back are priceless.

 

Nancy Chang practises in Darwin NT.

To learn more about the Vanuatu Blindness Project, visit the Medical Sailing Ministries.



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