Give the gift of sight this Christmas

Give the gift of sight this Christmas

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This Christmas, we're working together with the NZ Herald and well-known NZ chef, Michael Meredith, to bring the gift of sight to Vanuatu.

By Emily Edwards
Photography by Darren James

In the Pacific four out of five people who are blind don’t need to be. Alarmingly, an increasing number of these are young people, suffering from diabetes eye disease.

During the last 20 years, there has been an explosion of diabetes in the Pacific, where the incidence rate is now one of the highest in the world. Yet only a generation ago it was uncommon.

“Over time the wrong diet can cause diabetes leading to diabetes eye disease which can result in permanent eye damage and blindness,” explains Michael.

The NZ Herald and NZ chef, Michal Meredith, joined our Pacific outreach team in Port Vila, Vanuatu to help raise awareness of the diabetes epidemic in the Pacific. While in Vanuatu, Michael shared his tips with the public on using the local produce to create a healthy and affordable diet.

Below you can read more about Michael Meredith's experience in Vanuatu.

Dr Kasso examines the eyes of a person with diabetes at an outreach clinic in Mele Village near Port Vila. 

Photo courtesy of The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust.
Dr Kasso examines the eyes of a person with diabetes at an outreach clinic in Mele Village near Port Vila. Photo courtesy of The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust.

In February, our new eye clinic in Vanuatu will open, bringing some cheer to people across Vanuatu.

Here we will be able to offer regular eye screening, prompt treatment and effective diabetes management. These services will be available all year round, something we will celebrate.

However, we still need to purchase modern equipment such as a revolutionary OCT Camera that can detect many eye diseases, including diabetes eye disease.

But this camera is not cheap. We need to raise $70,000 before Christmas so the camera is there in February when Vanuatu’s first permanent eye doctor, Dr Kasso, returns to his home country to head the new eye clinic. How much is this camera needed? Recently, our Pacific outreach team saw 200 patients in a week. Two thirds of them had eye damage arising from diabetes that could have been detected much earlier with this camera.

While the camera will not cure diabetes eye disease, it is an essential tool in early detection and diagnosis which can lessen its blinding consequences.

Your donation will be a very important Christmas present for the hundreds of people in Vanuatu who suffer from the same condition.

Karlpat’s story

Blindness to the disease leads to a worse blindness.

A once vital and fit man, his good and honest life was torn from under him when he was diagnosed with diabetes.

Had we met Karlpat in 2012, his energy and strength would have made a deep impression on us. Living on the island of Ambrym, the broad-shouldered 46-year-old worked as a mechanic and was a proud father to three children. However, unbeknown to him, diabetes was starting to take hold throughout his body.

His diabetes was diagnosed in 2014 after a fever led to him collapsing into a diabetic coma, resulting in an emergency flight to the hospital in Port Vila.

When he awoke, he could not use his arms or his legs. Four years later, things have improved. He can stand with the help of a frame. A wound on his back, too large for a skin graft, took two years to heal.

Sadly, his eyes have not fared so well. The undiagnosed diabetes had damaged his retina. Without treatment there was a very real danger of total blindness.

Tragically, diabetes eye disease cannot be cured, however vision loss can be slowed with treatment.

To date, Karlpat has had two laser treatments. These have preserved his sight for the time being, but more treatment is almost inevitable.

When he awoke, he could not use his arms or his legs.

Karlpat with his wife, Susan. For Karlpat to receive treatment they must live in Port Vila, hundreds of miles from Ambrym, their home island. It has been four years since he left his teenage son, who lives on the island with relatives.
Karlpat with his wife, Susan. For Karlpat to receive treatment they must live in Port Vila, hundreds of miles from Ambrym, their home island. It has been four years since he left his teenage son, who lives on the island with relatives.

Karlpat’s Christmas wish

To receive treatment, Karlpat must live in Port Vila, hundreds of miles from Ambrym. It has been four years since he left his teenage son, who lives on the island with relatives.

In Port Villa his home is a simple room, with basic furnishings. There is an outside stove, where all the cooking is done. A bare light bulb is the sole illumination. Exposed wires can be seen protruding from the walls.

These are reduced circumstances for a man who had a good job, a happy family, a carefree life. Karlpat tries to be positive. He has the use of his arms, but as he says, “I can’t really walk. I can only stand up with help.

“I can’t really walk. I can only stand up with help.”

Even so, he is doing what he can. “I didn’t know about diabetes or how you get it. Since I learnt about it, I have changed my diet. I do exercises. But healthy food is expensive in Vanuatu. It is difficult.” Karlpat shares his wish of returning to his island, even just to be there to celebrate Christmas with his son.

The larger question is, will he ever be able to return permanently? “Maybe,” is all he can say.

Your gift will help do far more than save one person’s sight:

Vanuatu’s first permanent eye doctor, Dr Kasso, has completed his training through The Foundation and will return to Vanuatu in time for the opening of the new eye clinic in February. But in order to be fully effective, Dr Kasso needs this camera.

Let’s get Dr Kasso this camera before Christmas so he can start working to bring families like Karlpat’s back together.

If your Christmas support helps us to raise more than $70,000 for the OCT camera, then we will be able to purchase further vital equipment for the new Vanuatu eye clinic, saving the sight of more people across this beautiful nation.

Michael Meredith shares his culinary tips.

Supporter of The Foundation and well-known NZ chef, Michael Meredith, joined our Pacific outreach team in Port Vila, Vanuatu to help raise awareness of the diabetes epidemic in the Pacific.

“Over time the wrong diet can cause diabetes leading to diabetes eye disease which can result in permanent eye damage and blindness,” explains Michael.

While in Vanuatu, Michael shared his tips with the public on using the local produce to create a healthy and affordable diet.

Supporter of The Foundation and well-known NZ chef, Michael Meredith.
Supporter of The Foundation and well-known NZ chef, Michael Meredith.

What were some of the surprising things you learnt while you were in Vanuatu?

I was surprised and saddened at how high the rate of diabetes is in Vanuatu, especially for an island that has a population of less than 290,000 people. One of the saddest things I saw was some of the young children who have diabetes and how it impacts the whole family. Some people just accept it as part of their life, as it’s difficult to receive medical help. Yet diabetes is something that can be prevented or managed through education, medication and awareness.

Can you tell us about the impact of diabetes eye disease?

One of the patients I met, Karlpat, seemed like he once was a very physically strong man, but his demeanour showed that the last few years have taken a toll on him. I felt very sad for him, he was once the provider for the family, but now in a wheelchair he’s become reliant on his family to support him. It made me think how fortunate we are in the Western world to have available medical treatment that would prevent something like this happening.

What did you learn about people’s diet in Vanuatu?

I was shocked to learn that the diet consisted of mainly white rice and tinned meat. This seemed to be because it’s cheap and convenient, which suits the recent change of lifestyles for the local people, and affordability to survive. But eating that much white rice and tinned meat consistently is really adding to the diabetes epidemic. It’s not about cutting food like that completely out, but moderating your intake of it.

Michael, at a local Vanuatu food market, sharing his tips on using the local produce to create a healthy and affordable diet.
Michael, at a local Vanuatu food market, sharing his tips on using the local produce to create a healthy and affordable diet.

You held a healthy-food cooking demonstration for the public at the Port Vila local market, how was that?

Port Vila has one of the best fresh produce markets I have seen in the Pacific. The market has a diversity of local green leafy vegetables, fruits and herbs. This provided me with a big range of ingredients to cook with. Working with the local ‘mamas’ who run the market was engaging and very insightful. Overall I found it very exciting, inspiring and rewarding.

What did you learn about The Foundation’s work in the Pacific?

I was blown away by what they have established on the ground, especially training the local nurses, which is so valuable to raising awareness of diabetes and diabetes eye disease within the local communities. During the outreach, I witnessed so many people attending the free eye screening, which can detect early signs of diabetes. I also saw a Foundation-trained nurse, Basil, feeling very grateful and happy that The Foundation are building a dedicated eye clinic in Port Vila that can provide year-round care for his people.

Any other comments?

I am just so grateful to experience and see first-hand the work of The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ in the Pacific. The trip gave me a huge appreciation of how fortunate we are to have our eye sight and the available healthcare in NZ. It really drove home the significance of the work of how one man’s vision can truly change people’s lives. God sent Fred Hollows.

One of the locals enjoying Michael's food at local market in Port Vila, Vanuatu.
One of the locals enjoying Michael's food at local market in Port Vila, Vanuatu.

Healthy and affordable meal

Rice and beans with lime dressing

Created by NZ chef, Michael Meredith, at a local food market in Vanuatu.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups of brown rice
  • 6 cups of water
  • 1 bag of green beans
  • 1 bunch of radishes
  • 1/2 cup of raw peanuts chopped
  • 1/2 cup of Chinese parsley or coriander chopped
  • 1 can of tuna or mackerel in spring water (optional)
  • 1 tbs oil

Dressing

  • 1 tsp of coconut sugar or honey
  • 1 chilli finely sliced
  • 1/2 cup of lime juice
  • 1 cup of coconut oil
  • 1 tsp of grated ginger
  • 1/2 clove of garlic sliced
  • Salt to taste

Method

  1. If possible soak rice overnight in water then rinse out
  2. Put rice and water in pot over high heat then low heat until the rice has absorbed all the water
  3. Cut beans half-finger and quarter radishes
  4. Heat oil in a pan
  5. Fry beans then radishes
  6. Toss the beans and radishes through the rice and add any extra raw leafy greens you like – cucumber, pele etc. (Add tinned fish at this stage if you like.)
  7. Put all the ingredients for the dressing together in a bottle or bowl and shake or whisk
  8. Stir the dressing though the rice and vegetables

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