When you think of Fiji, what do you think of? Do you imagine picturesque beaches? Do you dream of snorkelling among the technicoloured fish? Lounging by the pool at a beautiful resort?
While Fiji has all these things to offer, I got to experience a different side of Fiji. I saw a Fiji where hospitals were few and far between; where people who did not have much still blessed me with gifts and ensured I would never go hungry; where housing involved no more than four tin walls; and where a man would travel three days by boat from a remote island just for a medical check-up.
As part of the outreach I undertook in June with The Fred Hollows Foundation New Zealand, I spent one week at the Foundation’s Pacific Eye Institute in Suva. My role was to help train nurses in the fundamentals of eye care, so that they would be able to take this knowledge back to their communities.
One of the students I helped to train was a girl called Nancy, who was from the small island of Vanuatu. Nancy was a single mother and had to leave her three-year-old son back home as she was living in Suva for the year-long PEI course. Each morning, she would get up at 4:30am to attend the eye clinic for training and study. She told me how passionate she was about learning as much as she could, so that she would be able to take this knowledge back to her village and help her community. Her story was only one of many that I heard while at the clinic, and each and every one of them was just as inspiring.
I was also fortunate enough to spend two days at the end of the trip going to villages to perform eye screenings. I had no idea what to expect in terms of the people we would meet and how we would perform the screening. The days involved conducting a best sphere refraction and giving ready-made glasses in either a plus or minus prescription. I was amazed, as I came across people who had never had an eye exam and were walking around with 6/60 vision. With a simple pair of ready-made glasses, we were able to correct them down to a visual acuity of 6/6, which was an extremely rewarding outcome.
As I looked around at the students in training and the people benefiting from the basic eye screening program, I felt proud to call myself a Kiwi, as it is The Fred Hollows Foundation New Zealand with the help of Specsavers that has made this all possible.
I went to Fiji because I was grateful to have been given the opportunity to study optometry and I wanted to give back to the community – however, I left Fiji having gained a lot more in return.