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Outback eye care: light aircraft, a cow, beautiful people


By Carina Trinh

It has been a privilege to practise in exceptional independent optometry organisations; my first two years at Morrison’s Family Eyecare Centre in Dubbo, followed by my current position at theeyecarecompany.

While I have always been committed to providing the utmost excellence in eye care to all my patients, I have also felt strongly about providing eye care to all Australians, regardless of their location, age, race or socio-economic background.

This commitment was only strengthened by the insightful experience providing eye care to Australians in remote areas over two weeks, as I enlisted to work together with the Brien Holden Vision Institute and Aboriginal Corporation Danila Dilba in the Northern Territory.

Stop 1: Palumpa, Northern Territory. Population 300


Palumpa is a small community west of Darwin that receives eye care from an optometrist only once every six months. We flew in on a chartered aircraft with three GPs and a medical student. A nurse was also originally booked for the ride, but the weight of the optometry equipment exceeded the limit, so she had to miss out on that week’s flight.

After landing, we set up in a small, dusty room previously outfitted with dental equipment. As I worked around the dentist’s chair, I learned that language was a bit of a barrier here. For most of the locals, English was often their fourth language. (The Tumbling E chart came in handy).


ECO 39 Carina - Fig 2 - cow

 Lisa the cow

Stop 2:  Maningrida, Northern Territory. Population 3000


In this community there is a tobacco-addicted cow who also serves a very important societal role. Her name is Lisa and she seems to enjoy grazing the soccer field chewing up left-over cigarette butts. You'll be lucky to finish your cigarette before she approaches you; possibly an effective strategy to help you quit smoking.

Apparently, Lisa the cow breaks up fights in the community, too. She and the dogs have mutual respect for each other. This is important because the dogs in town think they rule the place. In Maningrida, cars drive around dogs that refuse to move from the middle of the red dirt roads.

Two urgent referrals for neovascular diabetic retinopathy were required in this community, which meant ophthalmologist appointments and flights were organised pronto.


ECO 39 Carina - Fig 3 - & Ida

 Carina and Ida

Stop 3:  Warruwi. Population about 500


It was time to fly off to the islands of the Top End. The journey to Warruwi was graced with the stunning views of the crystal turquoise water against the cheerful skies. Warruwi is the main town on South Goulburn Island. Here I met a beautiful man called Ida who fills the role of the community’s dedicated health worker. He was very organised and had strong ties to the community.

Ida is from Papua New Guinea and has lived in Warruwi for eight years. He is well respected in the community and I suspect that he has been one of the main drivers behind the transformation of the Warruwi society from a community full of continual violence to one that enjoys harmony.

Ida, we learned, is also a TXT-savvy man who was extremely grateful for our services: ‘uv bin giving pepol second chance to read littlest of writings.. :-) uz r very special’;  ‘thnx fo camin hia..dai really needd der eyes lookd’. Mind you, this man's English was perfect. His SMS style is just so adorable and full of character that I had to share it in its original form.


ECO 39 Carina - Fig 4 - horses

Wild horses on Minjilang

Stop 4: Minjilang, Northern Territory. Population 300


Minjilang is located on Crocker Island, the island of the horses. Since their introduction to the island in the 1940s, the number of wild Timorese horses has grown to 10,000, outnumbering the human population of 300.

My time in Minjilang allowed me to truly appreciate how significantly diabetes has been an issue in all the communities I had visited. Almost every patient was there for a diabetic eye examination. A few patients required urgent flights to Darwin. Luckily, vision was mostly unaffected and thankfully, early detection meant that we had a much higher chance of preserving sight.

A common presenting complaint was ‘I can't see faces from long way.’ A simple pair of glasses was often all that was required to address this concern.

It was wonderful to see that once I had educated my patients about the benefits of a proper pair of glasses compared to a cheap pair of magnifiers from the corner store, most chose to go with the better option. This is sometimes quite a challenge to explain in the city setting but these patients, many with very little disposable income, chose to invest in their vision by choosing the $80 low-cost pair over a $7 pair.

I was also impressed by the determination of patients to quit smoking after I imparted knowledge on the link to macular degeneration. I had the privilege of meeting several Aboriginal women in their 50s who had undertaken training towards becoming diabetes educators. These women understood the concepts and were recounting to me how they had applied their education in their own households, feeding healthy meals to more than 10 mouths a day.

There is definitely progress in these communities where education is effectively improving the understanding of healthy living. Together with their community spirit, I feel that the future of these communities is very promising.

The people


The excellent organisation of the team behind the Brien Holden Vision Institute eye clinics in the Northern Territory must be congratulated. Prior to the trip, Michelle Pollard (Project Support Officer, Aboriginal Vision Program) answered my flood of emails filled with nervous queries.

When the trip came around, I landed in Darwin very ill with the flu after having strung myself a little thin flying straight from a trip in Adelaide the day before for a Future Health Leaders meeting.

I was pleasantly surprised as I awoke from my haze the next morning with countless missed phone calls from Luke Arkapaw (Project Development Manager for Aboriginal Vision Program) who had attempted to check that I had landed and checked into my hotel safely.

At the airport, I was greeted by a vibrant loving soul Nadia Clements (Regional Eye Health Co-ordinator) who was excellent company. We had an exhilarating two weeks that involved DVD Zumba classes, devouring her delectable organic home-made quiche, capturing sunsets, avoiding crocodiles, and my favourite: choosing to sit in the sweltering heat outside instead of the comforts of our air conditioned accommodation, in true Territory style.

The two weeks closed with a group dinner where I could meet the team in person, including the inspirational Anna Morse (Project Manager for Aboriginal Vision Program).

Random tip


Make sure you bring your lens cloths if you’re a glasses wearer.  As soon as you step out of an air-conditioned room, your glasses will fog up. It’s very classy.

Give it a go!

Honestly, this was an extremely rewarding and enjoyable experience that I plan to return to and I strongly encourage others to take it on.

Not only will you contribute to the eye health of our fellow Australians, but you will have a wonderful life experience and the opportunity to meet many others who dedicate their time to helping others.


Young Optometrists NSW

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