Tuesday, October 28, 2008

New Book Opens Eyes To East Timor

UQ journalism lecturer Heather Stewart jumped at the chance to follow an Australian volunteer eye clinic team to East Timor earlier this year, and has recently published her first book about the experience. Saving Sight Saving a Nation captures the blindness epidemic in East Timor via a series of stunning photographs, and was launched by leading Brisbane eye surgeon Dr Kevin Vandeleur on October 18. Dr Vandeleur is part of the East Timor Eye Program (ETEP), a volunteer effort aimed at eradicating preventable blindness in the fledgling nation by 2020. Taking photographic equipment, in addition to an audio and camera crew, Ms Stewart (from Fig Tree Pocket), independently traveled to Dili and joined the eye clinic team at the ramshackle hospital in the city to record their work. "It was a shock by any standards to see how Dili was still struggling despite having independence," Ms Stewart said. "I was determined to come back to Australia and tell the story about how desperate blind people are in East Timor and give credit to the volunteers who are trying so hard to help." On her return Ms Stewart generated content for ABC News and Lateline about the state of camps in the major regions housing over 100,000 displaced East Timorese. Her feature about the ETEP also appeared on the Channel Nine Sunday program. "I was expecting Timor to be further advanced and I really felt for the displaced people and was grateful they gave me a chance to tell their story," she said. The ETEP uses volunteer teams from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, International Centre for Eyecare Education and the ProVision Optometry Team, who provide services to help and prevent curable blindness in the East Timorese population. Project founder Dr Nitin Verma, an opthalmologist based in Hobart, said more than 30,000 patients have been seen by the group and more than 3,000 operations have been carried out. "I can tell you that the joy that you get when the bandage is remove and the patient has seen and the smile that you get is all that you want, and it hasn't faded," Dr Verma said. Ms Stewart followed the eye clinic team for a week in Dili and also visited Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's home to interview him and his wife - Australian-born first lady Kirsty Sword Gusmao. A few days later there was an assassination attempt on his life and President Jose Ramos Horta, highlighting the political instability in East Timor and the plight of the Timorese. "It made me realise even more how important it was to come home and tell the story that something good was happening in East Timor," Ms Stewart said. Saving Sight Saving a Nation will be available in eye surgeries across Australia and East Timor, with all proceeds donated to the Timor Eye Clinic Program. It can also be ordered online. (medilexicon)

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