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Tuesday / May 17.
HomemifeatureEyes4Everest

Eyes4Everest

It was just four years ago, back in February 2013, when Sydney optometrist Shaun Chang had an idea. He was trekking through Sagarmatha National Park and, having learnt how many local school children had difficulty seeing the board and reading at school, he felt the need to do something to make a difference.

As soon as he returned to Australia, he set about planning his return to the mountainous region with a likeminded team. His aim was to provide comprehensive eye screening and treatments for the local population – many had never had an eye examination in their lives.

Mr. Chang recalls those early days, setting up Eyes4Everest, with pride. “As a kid growing up in New Zealand, Sir Edmund Hillary was my hero. He dedicated his life to improving the welfare of the Sherpa people, whose selfless nature had saved so many climbers. In February 2013, I visited the hospital he built in Khunde – at the heart of the Sagarmatha National Park.

“Hospital director Dr. Kami Temba Sherpa explained to me the problem of uncorrected refractive error in the village especially with the children at school. I quickly discovered that the hospital did not have the expertise or facilities to address this, so I returned to Australia to form Eyes4Everest.

In October, Eyes4Everest trekked to Everest Base Camp, which is 5,340 metres above sea level and uninhabited during autumn and winter

“On our first trip in 2014, our team comprised just three optometrists and we examined over 150 patients (mostly children) over two and a half days in late September. There were many more waiting to be examined, but we had run out of time and resources.”

Overcoming Challenges

Providing primary eye care to the estimated 8,000 permanent residents of the Everest region involves overcoming many unique challenges. Geographically speaking, Sagarmatha National Park covers an area of 1,148 square kilometres that range from 2,845 to 8,848 metres above sea level in elevation. The park terrain is too rugged for motorised transport, let alone paved roads. Once you’ve flown into the tiny local airport of Lukla on a turboprop plane, the only reliable method of transport is by foot, with cattle used to transport heavier items. The well-worn rock and dirt paths of the region form the world renowned Everest Base Camp and Gokyo Ri treks, and it is along these two routes that the Eyes4Everest volunteer teams travel into the region, setting up testing camps at local schools, hospitals and community centres of local towns along the way. A typical trek takes around 16 days and covers roughly 150 kilometres.

In October, Eyes4Everest trekked to Everest Base Camp, which is 5,340 metres above sea level and uninhabited during autumn and winter. Along the way they visited four towns including the large settlement of Namche and provided 300 eye examinations, many of them for children. The temperature dropped steadily with rising elevation, and all team members regularly took oral Acetazolamide to fend off altitude sickness. As the view became increasingly spectacular, amenities – such as hot showers and internet access – grew increasingly scarce.

Victorian optometrist Joe Wang volunteered with Eyes4Everest in 2016. This was his second trip with the group and he said the trek was a life changing experience. “Providing eye care to people who otherwise don’t have access is really rewarding. We have the luxury of choice in Australia when it comes to eye care, whereas in Nepal, many people have never had their eyes examined before. It gives you a sense of perspective on the importance of optometry.”

Western Australia volunteer Bansri Shah described her experience as humbling. “It has allowed me to grow both professionally and personally. Testing the Nepalese and Sherpas was so rewarding and humbling. I remember setting up the clinic at a local school at Namche Bazaar after a difficult day of trekking, feeling so tired and down. But none of that mattered after seeing the kids in their beautiful Nepalese beanies, all rugged up and running through the school gate with their sparkling eyes and huge smiles. On returning back to Australia, looking back at the experience, it has opened my eyes to all the many things in our lives to be grateful for.”

Engaging Community and Government

Of course, the biggest challenge to providing eye care in Sagarmatha National Park is achieving continuity. The Eyes4Everest approach is based on a successful medical clinic project pioneered by a group of New Zealand doctors thirty years ago in the same region. The hope is that by conducting comprehensive examinations rather than vision screening, estimates of refractive error and eye disease prevalence can be used to petition the Nepalese government for healthcare infrastructure in the future.

Enlisting school teachers and trekking guides to assist in the testing process is part of this plan because it deepens community engagement. So too is enlisting the support of local manufacturing. All prescription spectacles are manufactured in Nepal and paid for with Eyes4Everest funding, and the trekking itinerary helps to sustain the local economy, which is heavily reliant on tourism and still recovering from the 2015 earthquake.

Working Towards a Sustainable Clinic

By introducing the concept of primary eye care to the community, Eyes4Everest hopes to eventually establish a sustainble eye clinic staffed by trained local people. This may not be as far away as the team initially anticipated.

Earlier this year, a young Sherpa woman, Tashi Doma Sherpa, contacted Mr. Chang to express her interest in Eyes4Everest. Originally from the village of Pangboche in the Everest region, Ms. Doma is a final year optometry student in India who would like to work with Eyes4Everest following her graduation this year. Eyes4Everest has embraced the opportunity and is working to secure funding so that Ms. Doma can be trained and employed to provide primary eye care in the Everest region.

Express Your Interest

Eyes4Everest has three missions planned this year. The first trip, scheduled for 23 September to 11 October, will return to the Everest Base Camp. The second trip, which is already fully booked, is scheduled for 3–24 October and will follow the Gokyo Ri trek, famous for its beautiful glacial lakes

The third trek, scheduled from 28 October to 14 November, will provide eye examinations to people living in the Annapurna region, where, just like Sagarmatha National Park, there is a strong need for primary eye care.

Expressions of interest for the Everest Base Camp and Annapurna treks are currently open and team rosters are expected to be finalised in April. Eyes4Everest welcomes applications from all interested optometrists of reasonable health and general fitness. Other health professionals, including pharmacists and medical practitioners, will also be considered.

To find out more about the Eyes4Everest project visit: eyes4everest.org.au.

Joe Wang obtained his B.Optom in 2012 at the University of Melbourne. He is currently undertaking a masters by research as well as working as a pre-clinical demonstrator at the University of Melbourne. Outside of academia, Mr. Wang also consults in private practice on a part time basis, and has a particular interest in therapeutics and ocular disease.

Equipment Required

Eyes4Everest is seeking a portable slit lamp and autorefractor for its mission. Please email info@eyes4everest.org.au if you can assist. Donations towards building the eye clinic can be made at givenow.com.au/eyes4everest.

Thank You to Sponsors

Eyes4Everest acknowledges its sponsors Opticare, CR Surfacing and the Australasian College of Behavioural Optometrists who together provide the equipment and educational materials needed for the group’s trips. Opticare provides a majority of the eye testing equipment required, which according to Mr. Chang enables the teams to examine so many of the local Nepalese people.

Eyes4Everest also acknowledges optometrists Nigel Chesterfield-Evans, Bansri Shah, Luke Cahill, Sameer Javidi-Hosseinabad, Samantha Tan and Sita Thakersi, as well as non-optometrist volunteers Kay Bell and Sandeep Natha for their contributions in 2016. Additionally, guides Kami Tenzing Sherpa, Ang Tschering Sherpa and Santosh Shrestha are acknowledged for their assistance, and the care they provide to the teams along the way.

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