Losing your eyesight is an unimaginable nightmare none of us would ever want to experience, yet sadly this is a living condition faced by 1.4 million blind children in the world, of whom two thirds are in Asia. What’s alarming is that the main causes of childhood blindness in developing countries can often be prevented or treated with the right care.
Melburnian optometrist, Jessica Chi, is one of over 120 volunteers or “Visionaries” at not-for-profit eye healthcare charity Sight For All, who donate time and expertise to help fight avoidable blindness among children in developing countries. Despite leading a busy life and running her own optometry practice, Jessica – who has been a Sight For All Visionary since 2014 – is committed to making a difference.
Jessica recently travelled to Cambodia as part of Sight For All’s two-year project for specialty contact lens training for Cambodian paediatric ophthalmologists and staff. This educational initiative aims to reduce avoidable blindness caused by cataract surgery and corneal conditions.
We sat down with Jessica to find out more about the project and what makes her passionate about being a Sight For All Visionary.
What made you want to become an optometrist?
When I was young, I read about sight-saving organisations and thought “what an amazing gift to be able to give”, especially to those who don’t have access to or can’t afford eye care. Being short-sighted myself from age 8, I understand the importance of sight, and I understand what it is like to not have it.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Sight For All project?
What a lot of people don’t know is that contact lenses are by far the best means of rehabilitation for certain vision conditions. In 2009, Sight For All found through a childhood blindness study in Cambodia that cataract was the most common treatable cause of blindness amongst children.
Visually significant congenital cataracts must be removed as soon as possible as they block vision and the child will not have stimuli for visual development, resulting in a blind eye. However, unlike adult cataract surgeries, intra-ocular lenses are not appropriate as the infantile eye is still growing. Once the cataract is removed, visual rehabilitation through spectacles may not be appropriate or not available, thus contact lenses are the best option. They also found a need for proper training of Cambodian paediatric ophthalmologists to provide the right care for avoidable vision conditions in children and so the project was born.
What connected you to Sight For All?
I have worked with speciality contact lenses since completing my Optometry degree, and I have managed many babies born with congenital cataracts who required contact lenses after cataract extraction.
In 2012, there was an outbreak of rubella in Vietnam. Rubella can result in congenital cataracts (amongst other birth defects). These babies had their clouded ocular lenses removed, but then were still not developing sight as there was no provision for an optical solution. Soon after, Sight For All Board Director Gavin O’Callaghan arranged for a team of optometrists to provide training at the Vietnam National Institute of Ophthalmology in Hanoi. That was my first trip and I found it immensely rewarding.
What has been the most powerful experience being a visionary?
On my first trip with Sight For All, I met a 10-month old baby who had his cataracts removed at age 2 months but had no spectacle or contact lens correction. He was unsettled and fidgety – obviously very uncomfortable in a new environment, especially as he could not see.
I inserted some of our fitting contact lenses into his eyes, and he gave me a look of wonder and amazement. He settled right down and just stared. There really isn’t anything that can compare to witnessing a baby see for the first time.
On my recent trip to Cambodia, I saw a few patients who had scarred corneas from measles, resulting in a ‘white’ eye appearance. One patient told me had dropped out of school as he could not stand the bullying and could not obtain a job due to discrimination of his appearance.
Another told me she would always hold her head down as she could not bear people staring at her all the time and asking her what was wrong. Both told me that they rarely left the house unless they had to. We fit them with prosthetic contact lenses to make their eyes appear more ‘normal’, and they both told us of the dramatic improvement in their self-esteem and confidence. They now feel they are normal, and socialise as normal, heads held high.
What do you like specifically about this project compared to other charity missions?
I believe in Sight For All’s mission – that it is far more valuable to train local doctors and optometrists than to provide the care. Giving the knowledge and expertise to our colleagues will provide sustainable eye care day after day, and further to that, having these specialists train future generations.
During a recent presentation by Sight For All Chairman Dr James Muecke, he said that his mission was to make us Visionaries redundant. I think this is such a noble cause and more importantly, a sustainable one. Going in as a volunteer to see patients is great for those patients, however, once we leave, the rest requiring care will be neglected.
Sight For All is about training speciality eye care and having the specialists train future generations of specialists, so quality eye care becomes accessible and blindness reduces.
To learn more visit https://sightforall.org/.