Feature, Orthoptics Australia

Giving back in Papua New Guinea

The level of healthcare available to people varies greatly across the world. FAREN WILLETT AND SHANDELL WISHART recently experienced how different eyecare in Papua New Guinea can be.

We recognised each other at the airport in Lae, Papua New Guinea (PNG), though we only knew each other by name, profession, and our role as council members of Orthoptics Australia. However, we soon realised that we were very similar in not just a job title, but in shared a passion to volunteer in a developing country.

Our meeting was at the beginning of a two-week outreach program organised by Youth With A Mission (YWAM). Among its many projects, YWAM works collaboratively with PNG’s National Department of Heath, provinces and districts, as well as village leaders and health workers on the ground, to provide basic services to rote communities in the country.

Our first day was at Braun hospital where the optometry team saw 120 patients, some walking two hours to attend the clinic. It was here we realised that the service we were providing would be life-changing. This was in stark contrast to Australia, where the procedures would be considered basic eye health care.

Having to adjust to island life was relatively easy, and setting up a clinic in a church, school or even under a coconut tree became a pleasant norm. We were fortunate enough to have an opportunity to work both in the villages as part of the optometry team, and on the ship with ophthalmology.

This collaboration between the village and our ship worked well, with over 100 surgeries performed and many pairs of glasses, donated by Lions Recycle For Sight and Essilor Vision Foundation, distributed.

Although we did not have the opportunity to work directly alongside each other, we did share a number of patient experiences. There was one in particular who stuck with us both.

On the first day five patients were to be referred to the ship for cataract surgery. Willie had been on the waiting list since the last time the YWAM ship had visited, which was 12 months earlier, and could see only hand motions in both eyes. At the age of 42, it was a condition you just wouldn’t see in Australia. On the spot, he was referred for surgical consultation. A concern with such dense cataracts at such a young age was that there might be other pathology at play.

Willie needed two guides to help him up the stairs of the ship, and we operated on his first eye that afternoon. The next morning upon roving the patch a great smile broke out, and he read the 6/12 line.

For the rest of the time he spent on the ship he was shaking our hands, and we heard it was the first time he had been able to take himself to the bathroom in five years. We operated on his second eye a few days later and by the time we left both of his eyes had near 6/6 vision.

It was so moving for us to be involved in not just restoring the sight of someone with so much of his life ahead of him, but to also help him get his independence and dignity back.

Our work as orthoptists equipped us with the necessary skills to volunteer in PNG; training general volunteers on the ship how to assess visual acuity, refracting patients, measuring patient’s eyes for cataract surgery, slit lamp examinations, managing work flow and critical thinking when language was a barrier.

However there is also a list of skills we didn’t anticipate on accumulating; speaking basic Pidgin, basket weaving with PNG volunteer and fellow roommate Nama and engaging with the culture of the PNG community, who graciously shared food and gifts in appreciation of our time in their villages.

Shimay, one of the volunteer nurses, set us a task of reflecting on three things that made us thankful each day. It was during this exercise, while sitting on the aft deck with our other friend and volunteer paramedic Lucy, that we realised that neither of us anticipated the personal impact a trip like this would have on us.

The patients we met, the people we worked alongside, the many eye-opening experiences and the friends we made will make us smile for years to come.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Shandell Wishart is a senior orthoptist at Eyemedics in Wayville, South Australia. She has been working at the clinic since 2007 after graduating with honours from La Trobe University in Melbourne.

Faren Willett is an orthoptist who graduated from La Trobe University’s graduate entry masters program, and is currently working in paediatrics at the Queensland Children’s Hospital in Brisbane.

ORTHOPTICS AUSTRALIA strives for excellence in eye health care by promoting and advancing the discipline of orthoptics and by improving eye health care for patients in public hospitals, ophthalmology practices, and the wider community. Visit: orthoptics.org.au

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