Life restoring surgery for Indigenous Australians

The journey from light to darkness can be a gradual one.

Alexander Dennis was in his 40s when his sight began to fail.

The singer, guitarist, and former Australian boxing champion was diagnosed with blinding cataracts.

“I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t cook which is terrible ‘cos I like cooking and well everything, general in life – it changed my life, very hard.”

The resident of Walgett, a small town in north western NSW, found his life severely constrained.

He became dependent on his wife and sons to get around each day. He hung up his boxing gloves and stopped performing.

 “When I lost my bit of sight it affected my boxing training with me mates and me friends and it affected my music. I couldn’t focus or set up anything,” he said.

Mr Dennis had received cataract surgery on one eye last year, which dramatically improved his sight. Last week the 53-year-old’s vision was restored completely when he drove three hours to Bourke District Hospital to have surgery on the other eye.

He was one of 30 patients. The operations were carried out by the Outback Eye Service with the support of The Fred Hollows Foundation and the federal and New South Wales governments.

“In the city you have specialists around the corner but here it’s hundreds of kilometres from the nearest specialist,” said the OES’s ophthalmologist, Dr Gavin Stringfellow.

“The Aboriginal community has a high rate of cataract – 12 times the rest of the country. To have surgery normally involves a trip to the city so it’s great to be able to bring the surgery here.”

Residents came from Walgett, Brewarrina, Lightning Ridge, Cobar, Canbelego, Enngonia and Coonamble as well as Bourke.

Bourke was the final stage of a pilot program to deliver cataract surgery to members of remote Indigenous communities in a bid to reduce delays.

On average, Indigenous patients wait 130 days for cataract surgery compared with 90 days for other Australians.

Mr Dennis is now able to drive, judge distances, walk comfortably and perform simple daily tasks such as pouring a cup of tea. “I can see my beautiful wife again. I can see the green grass. It’s going to restore my independence,” he said.

His wife Daphne is just as thrilled.  

“When he was blind I had to do all the cooking, driving, taking him to the shops and filling out his forms – all the things you take for granted when you can see. But since his sight has been restored he doesn’t need to depend on me anymore. He can take on responsibilities for himself. It’s just unbelievable.”

The day after he left hospital Mr Dennis was at home enjoying watching sport on television, as well as gazing at his six children and 16 children and preparing to return to work.

“If you believe in small miracles or big miracles Fred Hollows has done it for Indigenous and non-Indigenous all around the country,” he said.
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