Feature, Orthoptics Australia

Restoring the sight of isolated communities

Orthoptists are integral to improving the eye health of remote communities. MELISSA KAUK details youth with a mission’s ongoing work towards improving eye health throughout Papua New Guinea.

In a small village on Loupom Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG), four sisters nervously sit lined up on a wooden bench outside the health centre. Three of them have patches on their eyes from their cataract surgeries that were performed aboard the MV Youth With A Mission (YWAM) PNG medical ship the day before. The fourth, their caretaker, sits next to them in support with her arm wrapped around her sister closest to her.

These are the Lapila sisters, three of whom have had very limited sight for several years due to cataracts. Today, they are waiting outside the health centre to find out the results from the surgery.

One by one, the nurse roves the patches from each of the sisters’ eyes.

The second youngest of the four, La, had been blind for 10 years. A smile erupts from her face as the patch comes off. “Ah! Now I see!” she exclaims.

Another sister looks out in surprise to her sister across from her. “You’re so old!”

There is laughing from her sisters and the YWAM team as she reaches out toward the nurse and the surgeon.

The other two sisters have similar reactions – they brace and kiss each other as the reality sets in that their sight has been restored.

It’s an incredibly touching moment as the women and the YWAM team together experience the joy of the Lapila sisters’ newfound ability to see and the opportunities this will bring.

Stories such as this are what inspire volunteers from all over the world to come aboard the MV YWAM PNG and work alongside locals in this beautiful nation. Over 84% of PNG’s population lives in rural areas, and the isolation and lack of infrastructure makes delivering healthcare and training quite challenging.

YWAM Medical Ships Australia & PNG (YWAM MS) helps to overcome this challenge by accessing isolated communities with medical specialists, supplies, health services, and mentoring and support for rural health workers. YWAM MS works in collaboration with the National Department of Health and provincial health teams to support local health workers throughout the coastal and inland villages across the Southern Region and Morobe Province.

Ophthalmic services are a significant need, as cataracts are the primary cause of preventable blindness within PNG. Access to these specialised services is quite limited for the majority of the country.

Orthoptists play a huge role in the success of these ophthalmic outreaches, as they provide the critical preoperative biometric assessments to ensure the success of these procedures. Orthoptists proficient in refraction might also have the opportunity to assist in the optometry clinic, providing much-needed spectacles to people who might not otherwise have the ability to obtain them.

In addition to eye health services, the MV YWAM PNG also focuses on:

  • maternal and child health;
  • health promotion;
  • tuberculosis screening;
  • oral health and dentistry services; and
  • facility upgrades for health clinics (solar power, access to clean water, etc).

Volunteer positions are available for eye health professionals aboard the MV YWAM PNG in 2019 and 2020. Each outreach is typically two weeks in length, and the application process is simple. More information can be found online at www.ywamships.org.au/volunteer or to contact YWAM MS directly, ail info@ywamships.org

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Melissa Kauk is Medical Team Coordinator of YWAM Medical Ships Australia & PNG. She practised as a physiotherapist for eight years in Texas prior to joining YWAM three years ago as a full-time volunteer. She now spends half of her time aboard the ship in PNG and the other half in Townsville, North Queensland.

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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