Patient Poufa. Photo / Maisy McLeod-Riera

Meet The Team Working Tirelessly To Restore Sight In Samoa

Next time you’re heading to a Pacific island, consider the impact you might make to someone’s life with philanthropic activity that gives back to the community

The last time I was in Samoa in 2014 I was neck deep in the brilliant, turquoise waters of Lalomanu Beach on the east coast of main island Upolu.

This time, a different sort of bliss brings me back; one that is ultimately changing another person’s life.

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At the Tuasivi Hospital on the big island of Savaii, I’m staring into the eyes of a 95-year-old man, who just 24 hours ago underwent cataract eye surgery. Now, with bandages off he can see the light.

His name is Poufa; he’s a sprightly man, who’s excited to have his vision restored after being blind for 10 years.

WATCH: On The Ground In Savaii With The Fred Hollows Foundation

“I really thought about ending my life when I lost my sight,” he tells me. “I have 15 grandchildren, and the thought of never seeing them again broke my heart.”

While Samoa is an idyllic destination only three and a half hours' flight from Auckland, its beauty is not quite so clear for many who suffer from impaired vision and blindness. Here to see the work of The Fred Hollows Foundation, I’m told stories such as Poufa’s, where living life in the dark is a reality for many, mostly senior, citizens with cataract problems, and an alarming number of patients suffering from eye problems and blindness relating to diabetes.

The charity, named after Professor Fred Hollows, the internationally-acclaimed eye surgeon and social justice activist, continues his legacy as a champion of affordable eye care for everyone — especially those in developing nations.

In Savaii I meet with Samoa’s only permanent ophthalmologist, Lucilla Ah Ching-Sefo, who was trained by the foundation at its Pacific Eye Institute in Fiji, and John Szetu, the foundation’s medical director.

Locals in Savaii. Photo / Supplied

Determined and optimistic, the pair are midway through a week-long stint in Savaii, assessing post-op patients from the day before, gingerly removing bandages from more than two dozen patients.

The process only takes a few minutes, yet judging by each patient’s face, having their vision restored and the memory of that moment will no doubt last forever.

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“One of my patients said to me after surgery, ‘You are so blessed to be able to do this’,” says Lucilla. “This is my calling, to be able to do this for somebody else. Just seeing this morning the number of patients and how grateful they are. It’s always an incredible feeling.”

John agrees. “As a surgeon, I’m just as excited as the patient. The experience is different, especially for patients who have been blind for a number of years. To be able to see all brightness and the return of colours, it still makes me joyful every time.”

John Szetu and Lucilla Ah Ching-Sefo. Photo / Maisy McLeod-Riera

For the nurses and doctors working through the week it’s an opportunity to put their skills to the test and an opportunity to assess the overall wellbeing of their people.

The hospital faces challenges including lack of equipment and accessibility for many of its patients; yet the overall health threat debilitating Samoa and the wider Pacific, is type two diabetes, the main cause of blindness in the Pacific.

A ban on imports of low-grade meat was lifted in 2011. With a fatty, cheap Western diet overtaking the nation’s natural and organic food staples, better nutrition is a preventative measure of blindness that requires time and education.

Viva x The Fred Hollows Foundation tote bag. Photo / Supplied

“The problem is people not being aware that diabetes can affect their vision,” says Lucilla. “Through our partnerships with the Ministry of Health and National Health Services, we’ve been able to get out to the peripheries and screen patients for diabetes. About a quarter of our adult population have diabetes, and we’ve only managed to screen maybe less than 10 per cent.

“Awareness is key; we need people to know that they need to be screened, especially those that can’t get to the hospital easily. It helps us identify patients who need to be operated on and identify and locate patients needing diabetic services.”

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As they head back to their post-op patients, the pair and their teams pose for a photo before continuing their tireless work. “Whether you’re rich or poor, everyone has the right to quality eye care,” says Lucilla. “There’s a saying, ‘If it’s good for Apia, then it’s good for Savaii’. If it’s good for New Zealand and Australia, then it’s good for Samoa.”

• To give the gift of sight this Christmas and support The Fred Hollows Foundation, donate $35 and receive a special tote bag designed by Viva at Hollows.org.nz/ and Grabone.co.nz

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