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HomemifeatureLife of a Travelling Optometrist

Life of a Travelling Optometrist

The Eye Care Country (EEC) mobile optometry practice operates 32 clinics in some of the most remote areas of Western Australia. Optometrist Kirit Mahasuria and his partner, optical dispenser Peta Murray, travel for an average of two weeks at a time, taking in six to 12 towns and often driving distances of more than 3,500 kilometres. Peta shares highlights from her most recent travel log with mivision.

It’s a 14 hour drive to Newman, home of Australia’s largest open-cut iron ore mine and venue for our first eye clinic. It will be 4am by the time we drag our bags into ‘donga number seven’, a one-room pre-fabricated corrugated iron hut with a bar fridge, air con and TV. The walls are paper thin and we can hear the snores of the truck driver next door but we’re too tired to care.

The next day we set up in Newman’s ‘Population Centre’ beside the local hospital. We finish unpacking the optical equipment and 300 consignment frames at 9am, just as our first patients, a local miner and his wife, arrive.

On the road, it’s all about size and portability. Kirit swaps his refractor head for a trial frame and trades in his Goldman for the more compact Perkins. A slit-lamp is too cumbersome so it’s time to reacquaint with the slit-torch and loupe. Sometimes even a head-mounted binocular indirect ophthalmoscope comes in handy.

Heat mirages play tricks on our eyes and the land is so flat you can see the horizon on every side…

Patients are required to fill out a form providing personal details and eye health history. We see a steady flow of people until late afternoon, dispensing 10 pairs of spectacles and two pairs of safety glasses. Several patients present with cataract and pterygium, common conditions in this harsh environment, and are referred on to an ophthalmologist.

There is no permanent optometrist in Newman. This is remote Australia. The nearest eye testing facility is 600km away and anyone requiring eye surgery must travel to Perth or, at best, Carnarvon, a distance of 935km.

The sun is setting as we leave town and head for nearby Karijini National Park. We fall asleep to the howl of dingos and a flurry of shooting stars through the mesh walls of the tent.

Onslow: Population 573

Two days in the stunning gorges, natural swimming holes and majestic waterfalls of Karijini recharges our batteries and we’re ready to travel to our next destination, the coastal town of Onslow, more than 400km away.

The road is empty apart from the occasional road-train bearing down with the brunt of four carriages, some trucks so wide we have to pull onto the verge to avoid a collision. We pass parched river beds and the occasional dead cow or kangaroo being pecked to the bone by huge black crows. Heat mirages play tricks on our eyes and the land is so flat you can see the horizon on every side.

Onslow is the most remote of all the clinics, a one-street town boasting a service station and a corrugated general store-come-grog shop. The dust is insidious and seeps through the air vents of the car until everything is coated in a thin film of red. The locals nod sagely and tell us we’ll get used to it.

Internet connection is non-existent at the clinic, making it impossible to access the day’s appointments. We muddle through and manage to see 17 people, our last patient an elderly indigenous woman with suspected glaucoma. As with many of her generation, she has no idea what year she was born and her age becomes a calculated guess.

Exmouth: Ranges to Reef

We get back onto the North-Western Highway for the trip south to Exmouth. The landscape quickly returns to red dust and spinifex. Early, the next day we head to Exmouth Hospital to set up clinic. Bemused looks from the nursing staff suggest there’s been a breakdown in communication – we’re in the wrong place on the wrong day.

An unexpected day off isn’t all bad news and we quickly change plan. It’s whale shark season and the gentle giants of the ocean are feeding in the waters of the nearby Ningaloo Reef. We do a spot of diving before we get back to work the next day.

We set up our next clinic in Exmouth Telecentre, a small country style café, where we see 27 patients. The need for eye care services is great here. We don’t stop for so much as a coffee break, but still, we have to turn people away.

Carnarvon to Denman

Next morning we head off before day-break to drive 200km south to Carnarvon. It is pitch black on the highway. Reflectors on the side of the road are our only signposts along the way.

A kangaroo darts in front of the headlights. We slam on the brakes just in time as the big red bounds off into the safety of the bushes.

Carnarvon’s clinic is being held in the Aboriginal Medical Centre in the centre of town. We arrive to a scene of quiet chaos. No one seems to know who we are or which room we’ve been allocated and our first patient appears before we have a chance to set up.

It turns out to be a quiet day but worth the trip if only to see the palpable relief on the face of Joe, a 40-year-old truck driver, convinced he is suffering a terrible condition that is sending him blind. Kirit reassures him that he does indeed have a ‘terrible’ condition, commonly referred to ‘getting older’. Joe’s face breaks into a huge smile which lights up the clinic.

We consult with the local doctor as to the possibility of running retinal tests in the clinic next time we’re in town. With a high rate of diabetes among the indigenous population and limited services in the remote areas, there is an urgent need for screening.

Our last clinic is the fishing town of Denham, in the heart of world heritage listed Shark Bay. The clinic is once again at a local telecentre. Talk among the patients is about the annual fishing competition being held in town and one keen angler complains of having a fish scale lodged in his eye. On closer inspection, Kirit finds that the culprit is actually a pterygium.

Heading Home

Our two week round of clinics is finished. Referrals have been posted. Frame orders and prescriptions have been emailed to the lab and our patients should receive their new spectacles in three to four weeks.

There’s just one more stop to make. No journey north is complete without a visit to Monkey Mia, the resort east of Denham, where palm trees flank the sand as the sun sets over sea and dolphins gather every morning to be hand fed fresh fish from the beach. After breakfast we paddle a kayak out to the open ocean. There’s a splash and suddenly we’re surrounded by playful dolphins. It’s a magic moment, one of many that will stay with us on the long drive back to Perth.

The Eye Care Country mobile optometry practice, receives funding from the federal Government Visiting Optometrists Scheme. The practice operates 32 clinics in some of the most remote areas of Western Australia stretching from the Pilbarra region in the state’s north-west to Hopetoun on the south coast and east to Norseman, gateway to the Nullarbor Plain.

Peta Murray is an optical dispenser and travel writer.