In late September, Specsavers Point Cook Optometrist Marlene Boulos participated in an outreach trip to Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia with Senior Optometrist Matthew Chung. The trip was facilitated by Specsavers’ national charity partner, The Fred Hollows Foundation, as a part of Specsavers’ outreach program. Here, Marlene speaks about what she witnessed while delivering clinical care in Indigenous communities. 

Since graduating from university two years ago, I have constantly felt this desire and responsibility as an optometrist to assist those who don’t have easy access to healthcare. I feel lucky to be doing what I love at a young age and want to give back wherever I can to the community.

Working with Indigenous communities has been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time as there is still a big gap in eye health care between this demographic and the rest of the country. 94% of vision loss experienced by Indigenous Australians is preventable or treatable, yet in 2015-16, only 12% of Indigenous Australians had an eye exam. I was shocked when I learnt these facts back at university and knew that I wanted to help and make a difference by making eye health more accessible everywhere. When Specsavers offered the opportunity to travel to rural WA and work with The Fred Hollows Foundation and the Lions Outback Vision Van, I knew that I had to apply to be a part of the trip.

We resided in Fitzroy Crossing for the week, with half of our time spent in the Lions Outback Vision Van working with an ophthalmologist. The van was equipped with two testing rooms and a treatment room, and offered services including laser treatments, anti-VEGF injections and minor surgeries.

For the other half, we visited two rural Indigenous communities: Wankajunka, which only has 120 permanent residents, and Nookanbah, which has 500 permanent residents. Nookanbah was a three-hour drive from Fitzroy Crossing, close to the Northern Territory border.

The highlight of the trip for me was learning more about Indigenous culture, seeing how respectful and kind the communities were of us and of each other. Whenever someone came into the clinic that was senior or had vision impairment, those waiting would allow them to be tested first, even if that meant they would be waiting hours to be examined.

It was alarming to witness the amount of care still required in these rural areas. Many people came in with poor visual acuity that had been that way for years. We tested one patient in Nookanbah who was in his 60s and who was legally blind in one eye, unaided. On examination, we found a very dense cataract. We drove the patient the three hours down to the Vision Van at Fitzroy Crossing to be examined by the ophthalmologist. The patients was extremely pleased when he found out a simple day surgery could restore his vision.

The most positive aspect of this trip was seeing first-hand the impact we are making on these communities through our partnership with The Fred Hollows Foundation. Specsavers Community Program donations are not only helping those with uncorrected refractive error but also allowing easy access to ophthalmologist care through this wonderful project.