Optometrist Andrew Koch has been making trips to Timor-Leste each year for the past 14 years. As part of a team of Australian volunteers supported by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and Optometry Giving Sight, Andrew now sees his main role as that of working alongside the local health workers, providing training, mentoring, resourcing and quality control.
MAF Pilot Jonathan Lowe flew the team to Suai. During their five-day visit, the ophthalmological team performed cataract operations and the ProVision Optometry team provided eye examinations and mentored and trained local eye-care workers. After their work was done, Jonathan returned to collect them and fly them back to Dili.
When they first started going to Timor-Leste there were no eye care resources in the country.
They would come into a community, access and treat patients knowing that when they left, absolutely no more eye care could happen until they returned again.
Every day would start with a line of around 500 people waiting to be seen, and the team would start work and just keep working until the line ran out or daylight ended. 'We would work until we dropped, literally,' admits Andrew.
Things have improved since then with the gradual establishment of local eye clinics and locally trained Timorese refractionists and optometrists.
The trek to Suai before MAF
It takes 8 hours to drive the arduous 120 kilometres to Suai on rough, rutted and washed out roads. In the past when coming by road, the team would lose a day each way and arrive to work already exhausted, with equipment that had been knocked about and covered in dust.
This was particularly tough for Andrew who despite being very willing, gets quite car sick. He has travelled to most regions of Timor-Leste, but the last time he went to Suai by road Andrew said that he didn't want to go back there.
It was just too hard on both his body and his spirit.
And then came MAF, making so much more possible for Andrew and the team. On every one-week trip, they now gain more than two productive days, with better efficiency and greater predictability, and just a bit more enthusiasm.
Andrew is amazed that MAF has the only fixed wing aircraft in the country available to provide transport for programmes like this.
The need is so great, Timor-Leste has very poor road conditions and there is no efficient public transport system.
The help provided by MAF is so evident that Andrew openly sings MAF's praises, 'MAF makes so much more possible, it gives me the freedom to do what I can do with all of my energy. Every day we help people to regain their sight, to become more independent and productive because they can now see. We see lives changed through this, every day in every visit, and often in unexpected ways.'
This gives us all hope, that's why I love MAF!
'Jonathan (MAF pilot) doesn't always get to see much of the work that happens on the ground, but he is contributing more than he realises,' Andrew says. 'It's not easy to get people to volunteer to help in these remote areas. The roads are rough, sometimes dangerous, always uncertain and arduous on the body. Jonathan is providing access and reducing obstacles for good things to happen. This makes it easier to volunteer and to keep coming back. Jonathan is there for us.'
Lives have been changed
Mr Adriano Ribera
Mr Adriano is a farmer who walked for five hours with his brother to attend the clinic.
He has been unable to see well for a number of years due to advanced cataracts in both eyes, only able to see hand movements, no detail at all.
He was so delighted to see again after having one eye operated, and he really wanted to have the other one treated.
We fixed his left eye two days later. He was so pleased and wanted to express his appreciation to the whole team. Adriano said that this will give him back his ability to provide for his family and to be a community leader in his village.
12 year old Maria was blind in her right eye from a white cataract, caused from a combination of trauma and malnourishment.
After surgery she could see again in this eye, now having the use of her two eyes again.
Gertrudis da Silva
A 30-year-old woman came to the clinic to see if we could do anything to help her right eye which was blind from a cataract that was so advanced it only allowed her only to see hand movements.
During the screening, we found that in addition to her having a blind eye, her good eye was also going blind from glaucoma.
We scheduled cataract surgery for her cataract to restore her sight, and gave her treatment for glaucoma, to maintain the vision in her other eye.
After her treatment, she could not help smiling, giving us feedback that her life was changed forever.