House debates

Monday, 10 September 2012

Statements on Indulgence

Fred Hollows Foundation

5:13 pm

Photo of Warren SnowdonWarren Snowdon (Lingiari, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) Share this | Hansard source

When I first arrived in the Northern Territory in the 1970s, it did not take long to hear about and understand Fred Hollows and the work that he had been doing in communities right across remote Australia but particularly in the Northern Territory. Other speakers have spoken at length about the history of the Fred Hollows Foundation and of the man himself. I just want to talk about my own knowledge of people who have been engaged with and benefited from the work of Fred Hollows and the foundation.

It is very easy to take for granted the things that we have. You, Madam Deputy Speaker Vamvakinou, wear glasses; you have had access to an optometrist et cetera. Many Aboriginal people in Australia and many people from Third World countries do not have that access to eye care by way of primary check-up—just to check their eyes and provide glasses—let alone the ability to address that huge issue of poverty: cataracts.

Fred Hollows really was a man before his time but a man who made his own time and made something very special for all of us. Without his vision, without his own tenacity and pugnaciousness, without his abruptness and abrasiveness from time to time, we would not be talking about the successes that have flowed from his magnificent work.

I have know many people who were involved in the Hollows campaigns in the 1970s, some of whom live in this town and have become prominent in other areas of life. I recall that Jack Waterford, who is a journalist with the Canberra Times, spoke very fondly of his work with the Hollows foundation, following Fred around. There are so many others. When Fred passed away the mantle was taken up by his wife, Gabi. She drove the Hollows foundation under its first chair, Ray Martin. It was their ability to secure the support of so many good people that built upon the work and ambition of Fred.

I have a personal experience of being the patient of one of the doctors who does work with Aboriginal patients in Central Australia. This is part of what the Fred Hollows Foundation does in and around Central Australia, working through the Alice Springs Hospital and working with Dr Tim Henderson and his team. Their objective is to make sure they can give as many people sight as possible through the cataract surgery they have been providing. It just so happens that I have had cataracts removed from both of my eyes by Dr Henderson, who is a remarkable individual himself, having an enormous commitment to his craft but also a passion for improving life outcomes for Aboriginal people. He has been very successful in doing so. But they have done it in partnership with a number of organisations, and the catalyst in many ways has been the Fred Hollows Foundation, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress from Alice Springs, the Anyinginyi Congress Aboriginal Corporation in Tennant Creek, the Northern Territory public health system through the hospital in Alice Springs, and of course Dr Henderson and his team.

When you see the outcomes of this work, it is very hard for those who do not suffer from poor sight or who are not blind to really understand the impact of seeing. I was just flicking through a document which relates to Dr Henderson in Alice Springs called The Fred Hollows Foundation: Saving Sight in the Red Centre, where Tim says:

We treat lots of eye conditions, but cataracts take up three-quarters of the surgery, partly because this procedure can have the biggest positive impact for patients.

City colleagues visiting to help with the surgery weeks have commented on the high concentration of difficult cases and reported that what they would usually see as a one-in-50 case is more like one-in-five in Alice.

It's difficult to over-emphasise quite how much of an impact it [eye surgery] can have, particularly with Aboriginal patients, because of the role of the elders within the community ... generally, the patients you are restoring sight for are often responsible for retaining the cohesiveness and function of the community, and passing on all the men's business and women's business and maintaining the culture. And if they can't see to do that they can't show important areas and sites. So that's where you really get far more than just the normal impact you would get for someone with poor vision. You are actually impacting the whole community.

Our patients go from darkness one day to full sight the next—it's as dramatic as that. And the reaction after surgery is priceless, with people grinning from ear to ear.

Recently I was in Siem Reap in Cambodia. Those of you who have read Fred's book will know, if you turn to page 107, that it refers to 'Cambodia: Eyes on the Future'. I was in Cambodia on a holiday with my family. I was walking through the streets and I saw this hospital called Fred Hollows. I thought, 'Hello! What's happening here?' So I rang my good friend Brian Doolan, who is CEO of the Fred Hollows Foundation, and said: 'Brian, would there be any chance I could make a visit to this hospital? I don't want to put anyone out, but Elizabeth, the kids and I would love to go and just say hello and become acquainted.' A short while later, Brian rang back and said, 'Yes, when would you like to go?' I said, 'How about Friday morning? Would that suit?' I was thinking we would go along, have a cup of tea and a bit of a chat.

We rocked up at the appointed time and there was an enormous banner out the front welcoming me and my partner, Elizabeth, to the hospital, and all of the staff were lined up for us to meet. The person responsible for that was the Cambodia Country Manager, Sith Sam Ath, who is a wonderful, smiling, lovely person responsible for the Hollows foundation's activities in Cambodia.

It just so happens that we spent time in that hospital, met the staff and had a long conversation but also met some of the patients. I referred before to the statement from Dr Henderson about the impact that restoring sight has on individuals. I know that when we had the launch of this document here in the parliament recently, some stories were told about how individuals reacted when their sight was returned.

In the waiting room of this hospital was an old lady with her granddaughter. The old lady was sightless because of cataracts and was due to have the operation the next day. I asked her granddaughter what the impact would be upon the life of this woman as a result of this operation. It was made very clear to me that, as well as her being able to see, this would have an enormous impact upon her family, because this young granddaughter was unable to attend school because she was her grandmother's carer, as her grandmother could not see. So the immediate impact of having her sight restored was to enable her granddaughter to go to school. When we think of the secondary impacts of these operations and what they mean to communities, it is very important to acknowledge that the impacts are far more than we might at first think.

There is no doubt that the operation, which, thanks to the work of Fred Hollows, can now be achieved for around $25 in these communities, is a very simple operation. Indeed, from my own experience the operation took about 20 minutes. It is very sophisticated and obviously you need artisans to do this work, but it is a comparatively simple operation. To be able to provide this operation to so many thousands of people around the world—millions of people, really—and to restore their sight is to do a very good thing, a magnificent thing which has an enormous impact not only directly on the individuals but on their families and communities, as is outlined by Dr Henderson in his report.

When you wander around the bush, as I do, what you know most certainly is that, if you can improve people's capacity to see and do, they will get better life outcomes.

There are many great Australians who have been involved in this activity since Fred's time, and we ought to acknowledge the work of those people. I want to particularly acknowledge the work of Gabi and her family, the people on the board and the wonderful people that work for the Fred Hollows Foundation under the stewardship of Brian. Gabi herself is irrepressible—there is really no question about that. Without her drive and determination, we would not have this organisation as it is. The people who work for the organisation are absolutely committed to the best possible outcomes they can achieve for Aboriginal people in the case of Australia and for those in other nations where they work.

It is a great privilege and a great honour to know these people and to see the product of their work on such a regular basis. For those of us who are not in medicine—and, clearly, I have no knowledge of medicine, except to say that, when you are crook and someone can fix you, you are doing pretty bloody well—when you can go to an optometrist, who can help you with glasses, or an ophthalmologist, who can do an operation that restores your sight, you know you have got some pretty incredible people. To those people who are involved in this work, let me just say thank you and to the Fred Hollows Foundation I say on and ever upwards. There is no question that this organisation and Fred's life have caught the imagination of the Australian community. As result, they have been able to achieve the support of a great many ordinary Australians for their daily work. Let me just say thank you to the Fred Hollows Foundation for the magnificent work they do.


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