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HomemifeatureSight For All: A Family Affair

Sight For All: A Family Affair

Sight For All is an Adelaide based charity established by ophthalmologist Dr James Muecke to deliver specialty eye health training and equipment to low income countries. Founded in 2008, today the organisation has a small but highly effective team, including James’ wife Mena, whose service to the community was recently recognised with an Order of Australia Medal.

Sight For All primarily works in Asia, home to half the world’s blind. The organisation’s model is to ‘teach a man to fish’ – it’s a unique and sustainable approach that encourages low income countries to become self-sufficient. The aim is to build powerful training centres in each country so that eye care professionals can be trained locally then posted to regional centres where they are equipped to manage diseases themselves.

The organisation’s model is to ‘teach a man to fish’ – it’s a unique and sustainable approach…

While many charitable groups focus on cataract blindness, Sight For All comprehensively trains doctors in the management of all ophthalmic conditions, many of which have previously been neglected. These include glaucoma, paediatric ophthalmology, retinal diseases, anterior segment diseases, ophthalmic oncology, and neuro-ophthalmology. Training, on the ground and back in Australia, is supported by provision of equipment that allows colleagues to work at the highest level.

Sight For All now has projects in nine countries in Asia, as well as in Aboriginal and mainstream communities in Australia. Much of the work is driven by the organisation’s research arm. For instance, as a result of a study in Myanmar in 2007, Sight For All began training ophthalmologists in childhood blindness – the second biggest cause of blindness in low income countries behind cataract, when seen in terms of years spent.

Results from the Myanmar study were used to persuade the Myanmar Minister of Health to fund paediatric ophthalmology training and UNICEF to ramp up its vaccination program in the country. Dr Than Htun Aung, a young ophthalmologist from Yangon Eye Hospital in Myanmar, spent a year being trained by Sight For All colleagues at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide. Sight For All provided AU$100,000 worth of equipment to set up Yangon Eye Hospital’s first children’s unit, and in the year following Dr Aung’s return to Myanmar as the country’s first trained paediatric ophthalmologist, there was a 12-fold increase in children’s eye surgeries. He now treats around 20,000 children per year and has trained four other paediatric ophthalmologists to do the same work, ensuring a sustainable resource.

Sight For All has now trained paediatric ophthalmologists in nine countries, including Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka, via its Australian and Reverse Fellowship programs.

Almost three years ago, Sight For All became accredited with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as part of the Australian NGO Co-operation program. One of only two accredited Australian organisations working in this field, accreditation reassures donors that the organisation is functioning at a high level. It also helps foster relationships in partner countries and facilitates the acceptance of Ministries of Health in those partner countries.

James Muecke

I always wanted to do medicine – ever since I was a child, but I had no inkling that I’d work in the development sector until the end of medical school. I undertook my medical elective in Kenya and came across colleagues doing their elective at the Tumu Tumu Hospital in the foothills of the Aberdare range, north of Nairobi.

I felt that one day I’d like to do the same and the feeling never left me. At the end of my internship in 1988, I decided I needed something different, so I wrote to the director of Tumu Tumu Hospital, who welcomed me. I worked there for a year and what I enjoyed most was that people recovered from their illness very quickly, as opposed to my internship where I treated patients with chronic, often self-inflicted illnesses. That instilled an interest in working in public health in low income countries, but at the same time I knew I wanted to work in ophthalmology.

When a job came up at Royal Adelaide hospital, I had also been seeking medical positions in Antigua, Argentina, and the Caribbean – so I was torn. In the end I chose ophthalmology, because I felt I could combine this specialty with my passion for working in low income countries.

I enjoyed my work, however my passion for working in low income countries was ingrained and so I became involved in health programs in Myanmar

I gave myself a year, and by the end of that time I was enjoying ophthalmology, so I continued with it. During this first year of training I met Mena, and we later married. She has been really involved in my work ever since and has been fundamental to the success of Sight For All.

From left: Tom, Nick and James Muecke meeting the local children in a Vietnamese village

We spent an incredible year together living and working in Jerusalem and then I undertook training in ophthalmic oncology at Moorfields Hospital in London. We ultimately returned to Adelaide in 1998 with one son who was 18 months old. I secured jobs at the Women’s and Children’s and Royal Adelaide Hospitals, and in private practice.

I enjoyed my work, however my passion for working in low income countries was ingrained and so I became involved in health programs in Myanmar with colleagues at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

Ten years ago we started Sight For All to manage and fundraise for the projects we were doing, and as a result, this enabled us to grow and reach new countries.

Our work at Sight For All is stimulating, rewarding and can be emotionally challenging. Our childhood blindness study in Myanmar for example, found that measles was the leading cause of childhood blindness at that time and that half of the cases of blindness were avoidable. As a parent of young children, it was heart wrenching to see the very painful and disfiguring impact of this disease. What was most disturbing was that for less than AU$1 per child, measles blindness could have been prevented.

James Muecke preparing for surgery during a training
session in Vietnam

There’s no doubt that my two sons have been impacted by their exposure to projects we have undertaken. Tom, my youngest, is now studying medicine and is interested in working in public health in low income countries. On various trips, he has helped teach people to use equipment being donated. My eldest son is a film maker and lawyer. He is planning to write and direct a documentary this year on Dr Than Htun Aung’s work in Myanmar.

I call Sight For All my second fulltime job. We have four paid employees now and I work voluntarily 30–40 hours per week. I’m also fortunate to be able to draw on the resources of many other medical and non-medical professionals and industry suppliers around Australia who volunteer their time and resources.

What’s great about Sight For All is that it has always been a family affair – the kids have been involved ever since they were born, and Mena has worked with me for the last eleven years on fundraising, events and marketing.

Sight For All has been fantastic for my relationship with Mena – working on projects has really brought us together. We’re so in sync with this – it’s stimulating and exciting for both of us, though it can be a bit consuming.

Mena Muecke

I met James at a mutual friend’s party – he had just returned from a year in Africa. He was a little gaunt from his year of travelling on a shoestring budget, working as a volunteer in a remote hospital in Kenya, and surviving two bouts of malaria.

What attracted me to James was his sense of adventure, love of travel and his passion for architecture, design and cooking. He was interesting and interested, I’d never met anyone else like him…

During our third year of marriage, we spent a life-changing year living in Jerusalem, with James working at St John Ophthalmic Hospital. I worked in interior design on the West, and later the East side of Jerusalem. While there, I became aware of the impact that quality eye care can have in under privileged regions and that sparked a desire in me to become involved. However with no medical training, I wasn’t sure how this might unfold.

We spur each other on, bouncing ideas, often in a very spontaneous fashion

My opportunity came 14 years later with the launch of Sight For All. I was ready for a sea change from my interior design career, when an opportunity to assist with the marketing and fundraising for Sight For All presented itself. Using my creativity and project management skills, I have been able to develop and host events to raise awareness and much needed project funding for our fight against blindness.

The Trek for Sight Team at completion of the six day Himalayan walk led by Katie Sarah

I really enjoy the process of event concept development and the creativity that goes along with it – it’s a challenge to stay original in the fundraising space, and we are determined to do things differently to other charities. Over the last 10 years, the Events Committee that I have chaired has been incredibly supportive of my ideas and have worked alongside me to add value, inspire, support, and contribute as best they can to each function. We are all dedicated volunteers, with different strengths and networks, and working as a team with these ladies has been an absolute highlight.

It’s been so rewarding working alongside James, and as a volunteer I feel as though I’m balancing out all the good fortune I’ve had in life by helping others. We are both very enthusiastic by nature, with no shortage of ideas, so working as a team, workshopping ideas during our day to day activities at home, over the dishes or driving in the car, is something we both love doing. We spur each other on, bouncing ideas, often in a very spontaneous fashion. We are both driven by a desire to make Sight For All the best it can be!

my hope is we can make the world a brighter place for everyone

The biggest challenge has been balancing our time between building Sight For All and dedicating quality time to raising our two boys. We have always attended their sporting matches, set aside time for regular family holidays, and each day we sit down together for dinner. The boys are such an intrinsic part of our life, we have no secrets, and so much is discussed around the table that I feel they have been on the journey with us the whole way.

I am confident that both of them will always have an interest in humanitarian and philanthropic activities closely aligned to their interests. They have both already demonstrated this and I’m excited to ponder what they may achieve and contribute in their lifetime.