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HomemifeatureEye Doctors With True Anzac Spirit

Eye Doctors With True Anzac Spirit

ANZAC Day, the 25 April, is one of the most sacred days of the year for Australia and New Zealand. The day we commemorate all those selfless men and women who served and sacrificed in military operations for their countries.It is a little known fact that there is a group of up to a dozen ophthalmologists, known as the RANZCO Military Special Interest Group, who serve Australia through the Army, Navy and Airforce Reserves.This is the story of two such people.

Dr. Viki Andersons is one of the few female ophthalmologists in South Australia and one of the leading surgeons in her field specialising in laser vision correction and cataract surgery. She is also a colonel in the Royal Australian Army Reserve and the only Australian ophthalmologist who has served in a fighting zone as medical director of a field hospital.

She has served for more than twenty years in both her role as ophthalmologist and colonel. In 1998, Dr. Andersons was appointed as commanding officer of the Third Health Support Battalion, and in 2001 3rd Health Support Battalion was requested to run the United Nations field hospital in East Timor with COL Andersons in charge.

As well as being the officer in charge (OIC), I was the sole ophthalmologist. In fact in the whole of Timor there was no other ophthalmologist and when the local found out there was one there, I certainly got to see quite a number of eye problems

An Ophthalmologist Goes To War

Dr. Andersons’ military service began quite by accident back when she was just out of university and practicing as a general duties intern.

“Before I even started on my training programme for ophthalmology, we all received letters from the director of medical services. He wrote to all the interns asking us all if we were interested in joining the Army Reserve,” she recalls fondly.

“I rang him up and said: ‘Look, you’ve sent this letter to a girl’. And he replied: ‘Come and see me anyway’. I did that and that’s how it started. I signed up”.

Dr. Andersons says her duties over the years have varied, especially as she rose through the ranks, but have always included going on exercises with the Army on at least two weeks of every year as well as consultation with the armed forces and treating the sick and injured members of the services at home.

“To start with, I was a general duties doctor. At that stage you had to work for three years as a doctor before you went into ophthalmology training.

“Until you finish training you can’t really do your specialty in the defence forces so I joined up as a general duties doctor and eventually ended up as the commanding officer of what was then the Third Field Ambulance.”

In 2001, Col. Andersons became the first Australian ophthalmologist to serve in an overseas theatre and that was as the commanding officer of the Third Health Support Battalion tasked to run the United Nations field hospital in East Timor.

She commanded a group of Australians, Egyptians and Singaporeans as well as South Korean guards. Her staff included general surgeons, anaesthetists, intensive care specialists and orthopaedic surgeons.

“As well as being the officer in charge (OIC), I was the sole ophthalmologist. In fact in the whole of Timor there was no other ophthalmologist and when the locals found out there was one there, I certainly got to see quite a number of eye problems.”

UN Mandate

Col. Andersons says the mandate was for her team to treat only UN personnel, which included Australian troops. However, at that stage there was no real functioning hospital on the island so someone had to look after people who needed anything other than basic care.

“So to a certain extent, we had members of the general population coming to us. Anyone with a major injury that needed resuscitation just couldn’t be dealt with in the Dili hospital at the time.

“I treated a variety of complaints such as eye infections and visual problems. The frustration was that basically I didn’t have the facilities or the equipment with me. Most of the time you could do a diagnosis, but you couldn’t really do much about it. I did an eye operation on a boy from West Timor who had a phthysical eye from a previous injury. I was asked to do it as a favour to the other side.

“At the time, Dr. Nitin Verma, an ophthalmologist from Tasmania and Dr. Francis Nathan from Adelaide and their crew were coming up on a regular basis and in fact, while I was there, they came up and did a cataract clinic for a couple of weeks.”

Col. Andersons remained in East Timor coordinating medical services and treating locals with serious injuries and UN personnel with less serious injuries as well as diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

She is humble when it comes to her lengthy service, instead acknowledging the men and women who put their lives at risk to protect their country.

“It’s a privilege to serve the people who put themselves in harm’s way and it really makes me proud that our young men and women on the ground really perform to such a high level of expertise. I include the young doctors and nurses who work in the field hospitals and who have also performed above and beyond the call of duty and it really is a privilege to be a part of that,” she says.

As for Dr. or Col. Andersons (whichever you prefer), her career in the Army Reserve has been illustrious. She’s been the Director of Health Services in South Australia, Senior Medical Officer for the Second Infantry Division and is now involved in a project looking at how vision correction is being dealt with in the Defence Force.

“I will remain in the Army Reserve as long as I feel I am contributing in a useful way. For anyone who has considered serving… it wouldn’t do any harm at all to join and be a part of a great Australian tradition.”

Craving Action

Associate Professor John Crompton has been the Chairman of RANZCO’s Military Special Interest Group for as long as he can remember and, like his fellow members, is proud of his service, having enlisted in 1965 but there is one thing he regrets.

As a Colonel in the Army Reserve, he has treated numerous service personnel and constantly advises the defence force, however he has never seen active duty in a war zone.

“All of us (members of the Military Special Interest Group) would love to see some action, but the only way that would happen is if we were transferred short term to war zones and then we have to get permission because we are all of senior rank and they don’t like to have too much brass around,” he says.

In fact, Prof. Crompton says his group has suggested to the powers that be that their members do short stints in war zones, but it hasn’t happened yet.

“Our members would be prepared to spend time in war zones and we have suggested this to the defence minister. We have also put our hands up for Bougainville and Timor and so on, but they don’t want us.”

But the good professor understands why he and his fellow ophthalmologists are kept on duty at home and not sent to the battlefield.

“The only doctors the military is interested in regarding war zone duty are those who have broad skills such as anaesthetists and intensivists, trauma surgeons, orthopaedic surgeons, etc.

“They are not interested in having eye surgeons there because there is not enough work and because our troops who have eye injuries can be treated in Germany. Any Aussie troops who suffer eye injuries are triaged through Dutch or American army hospitals.”

Prof. Crompton says eye injuries in war zones are reasonably common but the problem is that very high tech equipment is needed to do imaging, to be able to extract the metal by doing vitrectomies and lensectomies and he says it’s not the sort of stuff you can shove in a tent out in the desert.

There is no full time ophthalmologist in the Australian Defence Forces and if a solider gets an eye in jury in a war zone he is usually sent to Germany, treated there, then flown to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington,D.C. U.S.A. or back to Australia.

Prof. Crompton points out that fortunately, there has only been two Australian soldiers who have suffered severe eye injuries including 19 year old SAS Private Liam Haven who took shrapnel from an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2008, just two weeks before our troops were due to pull out. He had severe damage to both eyes. Doctors had to remove his left eye and his right eye suffered major retinal damage.

The Military Special Interest Group advises the command in Canberra on recruitment visual standards, soldiers with colour vision or stereovisual problems, myopia and astigmatism.

“We advise on optical equipment with gun sights and binoculars, etc, and also perform laser surgery for pilots. We also look at problems which have arisen through the course of their service through either injury or disease and advise whether soldiers can be kept in the defence force. Then again we operate on those who come through with injuries and the run of the mill conditions”.

Professor Crompton says he is full of praise and admiration for the men and women of Australia’s Defence Force. Current world political problems make it essential we recruit and train more young ophthalmologists for the ADF to cater for future needs

“Isn’t it nice that you can sleep in bed at night thanks to the fact there is someone there protecting you?”