In early 2012, a team of 13 volunteers set out on a mission to improve basic eye care provision in East Timor, a country where around 40,000 people have poor vision and 2,000 lose their sight to cataracts every year.
Bryn Twocock, Essilor National State Lab Coordinator in Australia, tells us about his experience and why he volunteered for this extraordinary adventure.
Optometry Giving Sight is an organization supported by Essilor in Australia that works in countries around the world training local staff and helping to build sustainable eye care systems. I heard about the East Timor eye care programme from another Essilor volunteer – Matthew Martin – who went last year, and I wanted to contribute my expertise. I was delighted to get the call to join a dozen ophthalmologists, optometrists and medical volunteers from different companies across Australia for the one week mission.
A new eyecare hospital was set up in East Timor last year but none of the equipment was working. I liaised with my brother, an optical technician in the UK, by telephone (the middle of the night for him!) to set up the equipment. Within two days, the testing rooms, operating theatres and consulting rooms were ready and the lab was able to produce its first spectacles. It was an amazing feeling to have achieved so much in a short space of time.
I also had to train 30 eyecare nurses and technicians who spoke little English, on lens design and materials. A translator helped me to explain and demonstrate indexes, materials and the different types of lenses for vision problems. They had only heard about progressive lenses in theory. Luckily one of the volunteers was wearing them, and we were able to show them for the first time a progressive lens.
Our contribution was important, but the East Timorese ophthalmologists, optometrists and nurses were performing wonders – transforming lives with the gift of vision. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.
I visited the local nuns who run their own optical workshop with information, guides and tools to help them in their work. It was astonishing to see the complexity of the frames they had to fit and the level of skill they had acquired – handcutting forms and dry edging lenses – despite their basic equipment. I spent all my spare time at the hospital.
I lost count of how many cataract operations were performed thanks to the newly set-up equipment. We saw people who were literally blinded one day having the freedom of sight the next. Our contribution was important, but the East Timorese ophthalmologists, optometrists and nurses were performing wonders – transforming lives with the gift of vision. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.