A Fred Hollows program based at Alice Springs is overcoming local fear of medical procedures to prevent hundreds of Indigenous people in Central Australia from going blind.

Story By Kerry Sharp

Retired drover and stockman Bernie Dixon has guts. He has twice taken the 500-kilometre ‘bush bus’ trip from Tennant Creek to Alice Springs Hospital to have cataracts removed. “It took me a long time to get the courage to go,” he says. “I thought I was going blind. I didn’t know what was coming into my eyes.”
Bernie is now an advocate for the Central Australian Eye Health Program’s ‘eye intensive’ that’s plucked nearly 500 Central Australian and Barkly Aboriginal patients from the brink of blindness. He now encourages and inspires other Indigenous people to go through with the surgery. “It was fairly easy to go through and I can do lots of things I couldn’t do before,” he says.
On this visit, Bernie is in Alice Springs with his wife Helen Limbiari, who needs cataract surgery. She’s one of 38 people booked in for the 10th Alice Springs ‘eye intensive’ since its launch in 2007. “I think she’s glad I came with her,” he grins. “I’ve been telling her and the others ‘don’t get nervous’.”
Program administrator Angus Thornton likes having Bernie around putting out positive vibes. “It’s a big vote of confidence that people like Bernie come back for a second cataract operation,” he says. “They’re great advocates for people in their communities who are unsure about having the procedure.”
The Fred Hollows Foundation coordinates the program in partnership with the Australian and Northern Territory governments, Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation. The foundation’s Indigenous programs manager, Joy McLaughlin, says the rate of blindness in Aboriginal people is six times that of non-Aboriginal people. “The biggest eye health challenge facing Indigenous people is to reduce that rate of blindness, and our eye health program is working hard to improve their access to sight-saving procedures.”
The Territory’s remote eye patients come from communities and urban town camps scattered across roughly one million square kilometres of the Northern Territory outback – from Lake Nash near the Queensland border to Docker River in the far west on the edge of the Gibson Desert.

This story excerpt is from Issue #75

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2011