An optometrist participating in a remote optometry outreach service in Western Australia shares with readers the challenges of working as a locum in one of Australia’s most isolated regions.
In July 2008, Optometry Giving Sight approved funding to assist the expansion of the OAA WA’s remote Optometry Outreach Service Program, which assists participating locum optometrists by providing cross- cultural and 4wd training.
The sign at the start of the Tanami Track indicating my distance from Alice Springs, reminded me once again, not only of the vastness of the country we live in, but also, of its remoteness.
I had already travelled three hours by car from my home in the southwest of WA, to take a three hour flight from Perth to Kununurra to meet local optometrist, Margie O’Neil, for another extensive drive to Halls Creek. It was an overnight stop before the half hour drive to the start of the Tanami track, where I now stood ready for the further, bumpy three and a half hour drive to the Balgo Hills aboriginal community, near the WA/NT border.
This was the beginning of my week of providing eye care to the local indigenous populations of this remote area of WA as part of the Remote Area Optometrist Program set up by Margie O’Neil.
Five years ago, Margie had identified the need for eye care to reach the isolated indigenous populations in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of WA. She had started off by driving from community to community in her 4WD and setting up an eye testing clinic for a day or two before going on to the next. However, traversing an area, literally the size of NSW, over some extremely uncompromising terrain that often becomes impenetrable in the wet, was really too much for one individual. And so, the creation of ‘remote area optometry began’, where WA optometrists, through the OAA WA, volunteered to assist Margie for one to two weeks per year in bringing optometric services to these isolated areas.
On arriving at the Balgo community health centre, a bare brick building along the dusty road, was where we set up our eye clinic for the next few days. There was already a group of locals sitting on the bare dirt veranda as well as some waiting beneath shade of one of the few scrubby trees nearby. While I began examining local aboriginals who had been waiting there, Margie headed off with a member of the community to announce that the eye team was here and to bring in those that needed to be seen.
During that first day, I quickly developed a taste of the variety of eye conditions we would be dealing with. Plenty of refractive errors – large and small: cataracts; diabetic retinopathies; and pterygiums were as commonplace as was trachoma, a condition I had thought had disappeared from the Australian population. However, I was instantly proven wrong as I discovered when everting the upper lids of the first two nine year olds I saw.
The goal of the program is to identify sight-threatening conditions and either treat them locally or transport these individuals to a town where ophthalmological care is available (albeit on a fly-in basis a few times a year).
After my first day at the clinic, I headed back to my donga – (a transportable two room, sea container that is the standard interim accommodation option in the Kimberly region) to cook dinner and finish off the day’s paperwork. A key part of the program is to get the population on a database that allows their eye care needs to be co-ordinated as they move around regions, from community to community.
While the work is certainly challenging, it is so rewarding to enable them to see once again.
Peter McClurg is an optometrist and partner of a country practice in Western Australia.