Sydney, Australia, 10 April 2013: Mary, 54, a Bundjolong woman from Taree was declared legally blind last year. Just over 27 years ago she was diagnosed with diabetes and over the years, due to associated complications, she developed diabetic retinopathy – a condition that causes damage to the retinal tissue and can lead to blindness if left untreated.
Recent developments in advanced technology are producing an intelligent retinal camera that will accurately and rapidly detect, and eventually diagnose, sight-threatening conditions such as diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. In Australia, it will help to close the gap in eye health in Aboriginal communities and ensure people like Mary receive diagnosis and treatment much earlier in their lives, making it more likely vision loss is averted.
Mary lived most of her childhood and teenage years at Parramatta Girls Home as a state ward. When she grew into a young adult she moved into a hostel and began training as a nurse. When diagnosed as a diabetic, she was married with two small children, working in Redfern as a district officer, and also studying childcare at TAFE.
During that period she found it hard to juggle motherhood, studying and working and still attend the many doctor’s appointments, so she missed more than a few. Not uncommon, money was tight, even though both Mary and her husband were working, and they simply couldn’t afford to pay for the amount of medication the doctors suggested.
“As a parent you have to make choices. I chose to feed and clothe my children over paying for medication,” Mary said.
She continued, “I tried to access the Aboriginal Medical Service at Mount Druitt, but I lived outside their area so the free transport and assistance for my medical check-ups were not available to me. I really wanted to utilise the services and make sure my kidneys and eyes were alright but I was not able to.”
Until she went blind, Mary had been caring for her two grandsons, 14 and 9 years old, but due to her complete loss of vision Mary had to make other arrangements for them.
“That was a very difficult time for me as I had been caring for the boys since they were babies. At the same time I had to surrender my driving license and give up my car. So I went from being an independent woman and active grandmother to being completely dependent on people to do the everyday things for me – like taking showers or medication, packing kids lunches for school – all that stuff you take for granted, I could no longer do,” Mary said.
Luckily for Mary some help came her way and Guide Dogs NSW/ACT were able to offer her mobility aids and provide training for her and her family.
“They gave me my friend – the cane,” Mary says smiling, holding up her long cane in the colours of the Aboriginal flag. “With this cane I learnt to be independent again. I can even go shopping and travel to places on my own – just me and my cane. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without Guide Dog NSW/ACT’s help. I am very grateful to them,” she said.
CEO of Vision CRC and Brien Holden Vision Institute, Professor Brien Holden said, “Aboriginal communities will be among the first to experience and benefit from this technology thanks to the funding from the Australian Government recently announced and the partnership with Aboriginal researchers and community health experts.”
“Having spent the last 20 years researching and bringing to communities around the world solutions for correcting refractive error, we are delighted that the Australian Government is backing our plan to piggyback onto the systems developed to deliver vision correction, the capacity to simply and effectively detect and manage blinding eye disease through retinal image analysis,” Holden said.
The imaging technology of the breakthrough retinal camera is being developed by the Vision Cooperative Research Centre (Vision CRC) based in Sydney with international partners in Australia, US, China, India and Africa. Stimulus funding is being provided for development by the Australian Government’s CRC Program.
The camera is being designed for ease of use in the most extreme environments so that it can be operated by technical support staff and in the most remote and under-served locations.