28 years ago this Sunday, we lost Fred. I say we, because by the time Fred died he was more than just my husband or our children's father. He'd become a national identity.
People admired him as a fierce defender of human rights and a guardian of equality for people all over the world. He was a man who fought for what he believed in, especially when it came to the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians
- and he challenged anyone who told him something couldn't be done. The closer Fred got to the end of his life, the harder he worked to bring sight to people suffering from avoidable blindness. He knew his time was limited and hated the idea of leaving any job unfinished. An example of this commitment was Fred's final overseas visit, to Vietnam
, just months before he died. He checked out of a cancer clinic in Brisbane and on to a plane bound for Hanoi to train local doctors in modern cataract surgery. Even though he was sick, Fred continued to prioritise care for others.
When Fred finally did stop, it was like we were all able to catch our breath for a moment. The doors of our home were left permanently open as friends, family, colleagues, sports people, politicians and journalists all came to say goodbye.
When Fred died on February 10, 1993, it was a sad time for everyone, but we didn't have too much time to stand still. We'd promised Fred that we'd continue the work he had begun. Just weeks after we buried Fred in Bourke, NSW, I was on a plane back to Vietnam to reassure everyone that his work would continue. I'm so proud to say that 28 years on, The Fred Hollows Foundation has kept all those promises - and in fact made many more.
I'm often asked about Fred's legacy. In some ways the impact of his life can easily be measured. The low-cost intraocular lens factories Fred championed in Nepal and Eritrea have produced enough lenses to restore sight to more than 8 million people. These same lenses reduced the cost of sight-restoring cataract surgery from hundreds of dollars to about $25 in some developing countries. Fred's dream of affordable eye care in the developing world became reality.
The Fred Hollows Foundation, which we started around our dining-room table, has now worked in 25 countries and restored sight to millions of people. In the past six years we've trained more than 308,000 eye health workers – that’s 1,145 surgeons, 4,295 clinic support staff, and 302,716 community health workers. Fred's spirit lives on in every person who can see the world now because of this work.
To me, Fred's greatest achievement was his ability to inspire others to live out his dream for a world without avoidable blindness. He was a great teacher and, for him, passing on knowledge was the most valuable exchange. When he trained surgeons overseas, he knew he was creating a ripple effect of learning that eventually benefited thousands of people through sustainable eye health programs.
Today I still hear stories about how Fred inspired goodwill in others. The Foundation once received a letter from an Australian man living in New York. The man had caught a taxi driven by an Eritrean immigrant. After telling the driver he was Australian, the Eritrean man instantly talked about Fred. At the end of the journey, he refused to charge the fare because he was so grateful for what Fred had done for his country. To him, a fellow countryman of Fred's was a friend to all Eritreans.
Fred believed the greatest attribute of humanity is our ability to help others. I am so grateful to everyone who has supported Fred's cause in the past 28 years. In Fred's absence, their donations have allowed us to bring sight to millions. We are now on the cusp of achieving Fred's dream of ending avoidable blindness. To reach this huge goal we need governments around the globe to chip in their fair share and allocate appropriate funding to their own eye health programs.
Fred was able to rally people together for this cause, but today it's up to us.
This anniversary weekend, I'll be in Bourke visiting Fred with a small group of our close friends and family. We'll do what we always do: have a few drinks at the local pub and share a few yarns. We will all remember Fred in our own individual way. Personally, it's sad for me that Fred hasn't been around to see our five children grow into the fine adults they are today - although I know in my heart he has always stayed with us. Above all else, this weekend I will remember Fred as the father of my children - and as a man who lived his life wanting us all to be the best we can possibly be.
Gabi Hollows, Founding Director of The Fred Hollows Foundation
As featured in the Fairfax Media, Gabi Hollows talks about her late husband's life and legacy on the 28th Anniversary of his passing.