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HomemifeatureClinic in the Clouds Bridging Gaps in Eye Care

Clinic in the Clouds Bridging Gaps in Eye Care

Eye testing at Khunde Hospital.

One of the greatest challenges in our working lives is finding a career that aligns with our core values. For many health professionals, a driving factor is a deep-seated desire to make a positive impact on the lives of others. In this article, Judy Nam shares her experiences working with the Centre for Eye Health and Eyes4Everest – two organisations in vastly different worlds, both dedicated to bridging the gap in eye care for vulnerable communities.

CENTRE FOR EYE HEALTH

I initially started working at the Centre for Eye Health (CFEH, a subsidiary of Guide Dogs NSW/ACT) as a student research assistant, but it was CFEH’s vision to reduce preventable blindness in our community that resonated with me and inspired me to join the team as a clinician once I become a qualified optometrist.

The focus of CFEH is to provide eye imaging, diagnostic, and management services to those most in need. As a team, we ensure that individuals who are unable to afford private eye care, or who are facing challenges in accessibility due to geographical or cultural barriers, can receive appropriate and timely care.

All diagnostic and management services are provided, with no out-of-pocket expense to patients who are most vulnerable in our community. CFEH developed a collaborative care Glaucoma Management Clinic in partnership with Prince of Wales Hospital Ophthalmology, where those with suspected or diagnosed glaucoma can be assessed by highly trained optometrists, and (where appropriate) be reviewed by a consultant ophthalmologist.

We also work within Westmead Hospital’s C-Eye-C program. This is a collaborative care model for chronic eye-diseases, such as glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy, where care of patients is shared between the public hospital and optometrists. The aim is to prevent avoidable vision loss by ensuring appropriate care is accessible in a timely manner.

The most rewarding aspect of being involved in both of these programs is witnessing the transformative impact of preserving vision in people of our community.

EYES4EVEREST

Eyes4Everest (E4E) is an initiative founded by Sydney optometrist, Shaun Chang. During a trek in the Himalayas in 2013, he observed that the people in remote regions of Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park had limited access to both general health care and eye care. Recognising the unique challenges faced by these villagers, Shaun has dedicated the past decade to providing eye care to the Himalayan communities.

When I saw that E4E was seeking a volunteer optometrist to join its 2023 expedition, I jumped at the opportunity.

My journey as a volunteer optometrist started with mixed emotions of excitement and nervousness. As we were welcomed by the locals, any apprehension I had quickly dissolved thanks to their warmth and hospitality. The Sherpa guides and porters treated us like family, and very quickly our group of volunteers became a team, united by our shared enthusiasm for the eye care services we were there to provide.

TREKKING TO KHUNDE HOSPITAL

After a few days of hiking through Sagarmatha National Park, we arrived at Khunde Hospital.

Khunde Hospital is located in Kunde village, which sits 3,840 m above sea level. It was built in 1966 by Sir Edmund Hillary at the request of the Sherpa community. Funded by the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation in Canada since 1977, it is managed under the constitution of the Himalayan Trust Nepal.

We arrived in time to witness the opening ceremony of the hospital’s Eye Clinic – a facility only made possible by Shaun’s momentous dedication and effort over the past 10 years in collaboration with the Himalayan Trust Nepal.

There was a long line of people of all ages waiting for their eye tests, with some having walked hours to see us. We held eye camps at Khunde Hospital and at a health post in Pangboche, another village at an altitude of almost 4,000 m, examining a total of 275 patients.

The most common problems were dry eyes, uncorrected refractive error, and cataracts, but we were also able to assist a mountaineer with a rope injury to his eye. It was immensely rewarding being able to make such a meaningful difference in the lives of the villagers.

After days of eye testing, we also successfully trekked to reach Everest Base Camp and were able to take in the incredible natural beauty of Nepal and appreciate the generosity of spirit seen in the Sherpa community.

A CALL TO ACTION

This inspiring experience has given me a renewed sense of appreciation of how fortunate many people are in Australia to have easier access to eye care. It has also strengthened my resolve to work towards greater equity, so that our most financially, geographically, and medically vulnerable communities don’t have barriers to accessing timely and appropriate care. Such barriers put them at a higher risk for vision loss from treatable conditions.

The development of new referral pathways, as well as collaborative care and telehealth initiatives, all bring the potential to address existing inequities, and these are areas I look forward to exploring further through my work at the Centre for Eye Health.

I also hope to return to Nepal again soon. As an admirer of the work Shaun has done through this program, I would encourage anyone able, who shares our enthusiasm for making a positive impact on the lives of others, to volunteer for future trips. Committing to aid such an amazing cause is not a decision you will ever regret making.