Tas doctors give sight to E Timorese

ABC

The 7:30 Report

Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Broadcast: 06/11/2007

Reporter: Jocelyn Nettlefold

East Timor’s first ophthalmologist is about to finish his training,
under the watchful eye of Hobart specialist Nitin Verma. Australian
medical volunteers have been helping restore and improve eyesight to
the local population in East Timor. They’ve managed to curb
chronically high levels of preventable blindness and improved the
eyesight of more than 25,0000 East Timorese. Now locals are set to
take over the highly-specialised task.

Transcript

KERRY O’BRIEN: East Timor became the world’s newest independent state
five years ago and now the small nation is about to celebrate another
key milestone on the path to self reliance.

Australian medical volunteers have been helping restore and improve
eyesight among the local population. They’ve managed to curb
chronically high levels of preventable blindness and improve the
eyesight of more than 25,000 Timorese. Locals are now set to take
over the highly specialised task.

East Timor’s first ophthalmologist is about to finish his training
under the watchful eye of the program’s founder, Hobart specialist
Nitin Verma and Jocelyn Nettlefold reports.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Woodworking may well be his relaxing hobby, yet
Hobart eye specialist Nitin Verma admits he approaches it with the
same clinical precision as his day job.

DR NITIN VERMA, OPTHAMALOGIST: It’s all about accuracy and patience.
(to patient) Look straight ahead.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Time at his beloved lathe has been a rare
indulgence for Dr Verma in the past seven years as he’s juggled his
Tasmanian patients with the demands of nearly a million in East
Timor. Dr Verma is the leader of a volunteer movement responsible for
eye care in the fledgling nation.

NITIN VERMA: We’ve seen over 25,000 patients and we have operated on
about 2,600 of them and these are all sort of operations for
cataract, for tumour, glaucoma, injuries and things like that.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Nitin Verma spent the early part of his career
successfully rolling out eye care for Indigenous communities in
Australia’s Top End.

So after the mayhem of violence that followed the vote for East
Timor’s independent in 1999, the UN invited him to Dili to give
expert advice. It was a matter, he says, of starting from scratch.

NITIN VERMA: The eye clinic itself existed. At that time but all the
equipment within the eye clinic, whether it were chairs or equipment
as you see in this room, were all destroyed.

(to patient) You must not rub the eye, they must keep the eye clean.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: On his return to Australia, Dr Verma appealed to
his colleagues nationwide to take unpaid leave to help.

NITIN VERMA: These programs you can’t do alone and a large number of
ophthalmologists, optometrist, nurses got together and that’s how the
program started.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Volunteers initially dealt with trauma victims
and urgent optometry. Then began tackling cataracts and addressing
the widespread issue of preventable blindness due to vitamin A deficiency.

NITIN VERMA: Children had white eyes with white corneas, children who
were blind and we worked out with UNICEF that they should incorporate
vitamin A supplementation in their program for under fives.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Each year surgical and optometry teams make
several visits to Dili and outlying districts. Equipment and
transport is usually donated by companies and charities.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: One of the program s supporters is Jose
Ramos-Horta now President of East Timor.

JOSE RAMOS-HORTA, PRESIDENT OF EAST TIME: It is amazing. It’s
fantastic. I’m very touched by the dedication, the generosity of the
doctors, the nurses and all those who have made this program possible.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: But this year marks the official end of
Australia’s contribution.

NITIN VERMA: The need in East Timor is not material, the need in East
Timor is training and the need in East Timor is the empowerment of
the people so they can earn a living, that they continue maintaining
their dignity and that they become truly independent.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Timorese doctor, Marcelino Correia is the key to
handover. He will take charge of the Dili eye clinic in the new year
and is looking forward to the satisfaction of restoring his
countrymen ‘s sight and livelihoods.

DR MARCELINO CORREIA, NATIONAL HOSPITAL, DILI: We do the operation
and then one day after that they can see and this is amazing for them.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Dr Correia who has been trained in ophthalmology
by Australian specialists is completing his studies in Hobart. He
says more equipment and training is still needed in health services
at home, particularly in the districts. Do you feel proud to be East
Timor’s first ophthalmologist?

DR MARCELINO CORREIA: I think the Timorese people would be proud for me.

JOCELYN NETTLEFOLD: Dr Verma and his colleagues plan a staged
withdrawal from the East Timor eye program over the next few years.

NITIN VERMA: The very fact that I look forward to going there each
time and I haven’t given up as yet and the only thing you sort of
bring back are memories of smiles and I suppose, achievements in
terms of being able to restore sight under difficult circumstances.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Jocelyn Nettlefold with that report.

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