Saving Sight, Healing a Nation

A/Prof Nitin Verma AM

Meeting:  2013 RANZCO


Date: 06 Nov 2013


Session Time: 11:00 am - 11:30 am

The challenges of building a nation from scratch in the post con?ict phase are enormous. Thephysical aspects are a monumental task, but the restoration of trust that one person has for anotheris even bigger.

East Timor gained independence from Indonesia after a bloody referendum in 1999. The price for thiswas very heavy. There was considerable loss of life, property and infrastructure. The whole countrywas virtually destroyed and came to a standstill. Needless to say, the fragile health system alsocollapsed. That was the state of the country when we had our ?rst encounter.

This presentation is about our participation in the journey of rebuilding a country – East Timor. It isabout the humanitarian response to massive crisis by a small group of Australian Volunteers in 2000.The initial focus was on cataract surgery and refraction and later expanded to include training andsetting up of infrastructure all over the country. Policies and procedures used in the developed worldwere amended and introduced in keeping with local conditions. Strong partnerships were establishedwith individuals, governments, professional colleges, INGO’s and the industry to make all this areality. These exist today.

The program grew and other initiatives such as scholarships in Australia for Timorese students,establishment of sister school partnerships in both countries and increased collaboration between theTimorese and Australian state Governments. Programs for giving books and toys to orphanages and youth support programs like Strings for Timor started.This is the story of how initiatives in Eye Health were the starting point for improving goodwill/collaboration between two nations. Involving both sides of the community resulted in small stepstowards improving quality of life, alleviating poverty and building a stronger, more stable region. Thebene?ciaries were not just the East Timorese, but also the members of the visiting teams who formednew friendships and cemented old ones!

Eye Care in East Timor is coming of age. The ophthalmologist and nurses trained through theprogram are gaining con?dence and have the expertise to mentor new trainees. Training programsat all levels are being set up in the country to suit local conditions.The true success of any mentoring program is, surely, when the student becomes self-reliant. To thisend, the success of the East Timor Eye Program is underpinned by a robust exit strategy so that whatis achieved is true (ophthalmic) independence!