Australians are being urged to get behind National Close the Gap Day on Thursday 22 March.

All around the country local organisations and communities are working to close the gap in life expectancy and tackling the health crisis that sees Aboriginal people experience higher rates of preventable illness – including avoidable blindness.

One of the ways The Foundation is trying to close the gap is through The Fred Hollows Fellowship Program, which gives junior eye doctors the opportunity to experience ophthalmology in Indigenous communities. As a result of this often life-changing experience, it is hoped their commitment to improving Indigenous health will continue throughout their career.

Ophthalmologist Dr Douglas Parker is the 2012 Fred Hollows Fellowship recipient and commenced his learning at Alice Springs Hospital.

One of Dr Parker’s first patients was Indigenous elder, Reggie Uluru. Reggie had undergone successful eyelid surgery during a previous surgical session coordinated by The Foundation.

“My family and I had just returned from visiting Uluru the weekend before, and here he was - first patient on the operating list. Needless to say, on hearing about Reggie’s status as a traditional owner of Uluru, it was clear to me how much was at stake.”

Dr Parker says Reggie’s operation went very smoothly. “We have since visited the Mutitjulu community, of which he is an elder. We found him in good spirits, and delighted with his vision.”

Now in its fourth year, The Foundation's fellowship program provides junior ophthalmologists from Australia and New Zealand with a unique and rewarding experience - both professionally and personally.

“My hope is that the links and networks I form during my time with The Foundation will create opportunities for me to be involved in this type of work throughout my whole career,” says Dr Parker.

His next 12-week placement will be in Fiji working under the supervision of Dr John Szetu, the head of the Pacific Eye Institute in Suva. “I have yet to meet him, but my predecessors all rave about what a wonderful teacher he is.”

Like many Australians, Dr Parker had heard of Fred Hollows well before he truly understood what it was he did.

“As a medical student on summer holidays on the South Coast of NSW one year, I found his autobiography at a local market. I had already developed an interest in eyes by that point, but after I read the book I knew that ophthalmology was the specialty for me.”

From what he has witnessed so far, Dr Parker says great inroads have been made in the eye care of Central Australians, especially in cataract surgery and the treatment of diabetic retinopathy.

He says the efforts of local ophthalmologist Dr Tim Henderson and his team, and the visiting specialists involved in The Foundation-coordinated week-long surgical intensive sessions have done a lot to improve Indigenous eye health in remote communities.

While there are significant challenges ahead, Dr Parker says the dedicated eye care centre planned for Central Australia is “very exciting indeed.” The Foundation has committed to raising $3 millionto help build this permanent new eye care facility at Alice Springs Hospital.

“I hope it will encourage a lot more ophthalmologists to offer their services in this area of need.”

The Fred Hollows Foundation Fellowship is offered in partnership with the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO), and final year ophthalmology registrars in Australia and New Zealand are eligible to apply. Applications open in April each year for intake the following academic year.

Find out more about our work in Indigenous Australia.

"A special moment I'll never forget"

"An operation I performed on a young man called ‘Jamesie’ from a community in Western Australia was particularly significant, given that it was his only eye – he relied upon it entirely. Had anything gone wrong with the surgery it would have been catastrophic, so there was a lot at stake.

But I tell you what - the smile that appeared on his face when I took the patch off was just wonderful. I'll never forget it."