Ba Ria, Vietnam, October 2012: At 7:30am the temperature was already soaring towards 30 degrees plus. The heat had no dampening effect on the lines of excited school children, perched on tiny red stools eagerly awaiting our arrival. We knew nothing of this until our minibus sped through the school gates and halted abruptly in front of the children, who immediately erupted into a smiling, cheering melee of red and white school uniforms.
We were at a secondary school in the Xuyen Moc District, Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province in southern Vietnam, where a school screening was planned for the day. Travelling with our eye care team was Jessica Gallagher, Global Ambassador for Vision 2020 Australia on her first foray into experiencing eye care service delivery in a local context.
Jess is a sight-impaired Australian Paralympian who made history in 2010, by becoming the first Australian woman to win a Winter Paralympic Games medal. She was appointed Vision 2020 Australia’s first Global Ambassador for Australia’s efforts to overcome avoidable blindness and vision impairment. Her role includes turning the spotlight on the difference Australian aid and work is making, and raising awareness of the link between blindness and poverty.
“I am thrilled to support the efforts of Australian agencies working in partnership to improve the vision of millions of people in the region who are not so lucky,” Ms Gallagher said. “Obviously, losing my own sight means that this is an issue that is close to my heart and I am happy to be able to give something back.”
One school girl stood out from the continuous flow of children being screened, distinguished by her minute stature. Trang is nine years old and had never had her eyes tested. She attends the local primary school, and was a very good student until the last two years when her grades dramatically fell. Recently her father, Tuan, has seen her holding her books very close to her face and rubbing her eyes a lot.
Tuan asked permission for Trang’s eyes to be tested at the secondary school screening as he was concerned about his daughter’s welfare. Jess remembered how it felt the first time she had her eyes tested and stayed with Trang through the screening process. The eye test showed Trang needed glasses for both distance and close sight, but she will be able to see well with the correct prescription. Jess explained to the little girl what good news that was for her future dreams.
Tuan is a single father with a physical disability and is raising his two daughters on a very limited income. He explained to the refractionist examining Trang that he can no longer see well to read and write. This concerns Tuan greatly as his current job requires good reading and writing skills. The refractionist offered to test his eyes and diagnosed Tuan with presbyopia, a condition known as ‘ageing eyes’, explaining his sight can be easily corrected with reading glasses.
We invited Tuan and Trang to the Ba Ria Vision Centre in the afternoon to receive their new glasses and they arrived on an old motorbike smiling in anticipation. Trang stood outside the vision centre door with Jess and looked up at the trees, smiling in her new glasses. She walked back inside the vision centre and studied her father’s face, clearly able to see his familiar features again.
Tuan’s happiness was obvious for all to see when he tried reading a magazine wearing his new glasses, “Look at my freedom, I can read the words from any distance. This is amazing. I can’t thank you enough for this gift,” he said.
Jennifer Gersbeck, CEO of Vision 2020 Australia was accompanying Jess on her first trip into the field. “I am very proud to have Jess Gallagher, our Global Ambassador with me here in Vietnam,” said Ms Gersbeck.
“We are very happy to be in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province and Vision 2020 Australia is delighted to witness the great eye care work happening here. Global Consortium members like the Brien Holden Vision Institute are all specialist non government organisations with a track record of achieving outstanding results with Australian aid funding both in Australia and overseas,” she said.
A little over six months ago the launch of the Vietnam Australia Vision Support Program (VAVSP) offered a giant step forward for eye care services in Ba Ria-Vung Tau (BRVT). The impact of this program has not only been immediate but development work is establishing long term access to refraction services for the local communities.
Three vision centres successfully running in the provincial town of Ba Ria and districts of Xuyen Moc and Dat Do are providing daily access to eye examinations, prescription spectacles and referrals for further vision care to local communities. The number of eye screenings offered so far is in excess of 7000.
Local ophthalmologist, Dr Nguyen Viet Giap, Director of the Ba Ria-Vung Tau Provincial Eye Centre, is excited by the impact the program is having on the provincial communities. “At the opening in March this year I expressed my ambition for the VAVSP to help our communities have better access to eye care. Together with my eye care teams supported by the Brien Holden Vision Institute, we have been working very hard to achieve this goal. Over the last six months, aside from our work in the vision centres, we have run education courses for local health workers, provided eye care in local schools and our poorer communities,” he said.
The Vietnam Australia Vision Support Program (VAVSP) is a collaboration between the Ba Ria-Vung Tau People's Committee, the Ba Ria-Vung Tau Provincial Eye Centre, local community partners and the Brien Holden Vision Institute. Funding assistance is also provided by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), through the Avoidable Blindness Initiative and Vision 2020 Australia Global Consortium.
In 2010, Jessica Gallagher created history at the Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, becoming the first Australian woman to ever win a Winter Paralympic Games medal. With a rare disease known as cone dystrophy, Jessica became eligible for both the Summer and Winter Paralympics and has now returned to athletics in the long jump and javelin. Making her Australian debut at the Athletics World Championships in 2011, just 10 months after the Vancouver Olympic Games, Jessica won a silver medal in the long jump and a bronze medal in the javelin. In 2010, she was named Female Australian Paralympian of the Year for her bronze medal performance in Vancouver and is now working towards her quest to be the first Australian athlete to medal at both a summer and winter Paralympic Games.
To read Jess Gallagher's blog from her trip to Vietnam click here