A little over two decades ago, ophthalmologist Jamie La Nauze led a team from The Foundation to teach modern cataract surgery to the Vietnamese.
Last year he used the 20th anniversary of that visit to reflect on Fred’s vision for Vietnam and to assess the ongoing success of the program. Dr La Nauze shares his thoughts with ABC science reporter Robyn Williams on Ockham's Razor.
Now picture this: Vietnam, a country of 70 million people, a pariah state still embargoed by the Americans and left to whither by the withdrawal of the Russians. Little equipment—for example not even a functioning operating microscope in the major eye centre in Ho Chi Minh City. In place though, a widespread medical expertise but a poorly funded infrastructure. Cataract blindness was in the order of 0.5 per cent of the population—some 350,000 people.
Fred had been to Vietnam the year before with an exploratory team to demonstrate that it was possible to undertake and train surgeons in modern intraocular lens surgery. Fred said he’d be back to train the Vietnamese. Sadly he didn’t make it, so it was up to us to carry out his rather daunting promise.
I, with my colleagues in the foundation, followed up Fred’s visit to Vietnam and planned, with the Vietnamese, a skills transfer program.
Professor Nhan who headed the Vietnamese National Institute of Ophthalmology, was at that time also Minster of Health and this made our introduction a little easier.
Professor Nhan was of the old school. During the American war, he had none of the delicate eye sutures we use to suture up eye wounds, so he took to cutting up rats tails, sterilising them in alcohol and slicing them up very thinly with a razor blade.
He and Fred had hit it off and Fred even managed to obtain an audience with General Giap, the famous conqueror of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 —the most revered living figure in Vietnam at that time.
We had taken the view that a slow introduction to modern cataract surgery was not the way to go. We wanted to establish the surgical culture across the country quickly. We believed, as we had already seen at home, that demand would be driven by patients not doctors, once the quality of the surgery was evident. We wanted exponential growth. We needed to think more broadly than a limited training exercise.
> For full transcript and audio, go to Ockham's Razor on the ABC Radio National website.
> Find out more about The Foundation's work in Vietnam.