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September 10, 2014

All for sight

Over 45 million people worldwide are blind, with half of them living mere hours away in Asia. Most cruelly of all, most of that suffering is avoidable. An Adelaide-based not-for-profit organisation is helping to lift the veil of darkness.

  • Words: Emma Waterman
  • Pictures: Ben McPherson


As we chat with the group’s founding chairperson, ophthalmologist Dr James Muecke, however, it’s clear that the size of the space is the last thing on his mind. Dr Muecke has bigger concerns. 

During his internship year after medical school, James flew halfway across the world to work in a rural hospital in Kenya. A few years later, he was working at eye clinics in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

James’ career has been defined by his commitment to helping disadvantaged people in need all around the world. These philatranthropic endeavours culminated six years ago with the founding of Sight for All, which James established along with colleagues at the South Australian Institute of Ophthalmology.

“Dr Than Htun Aung spent a year training with us… In the four years since he’s been back in Myanmar, he’s treated over 10,000 children.”

The foundation’s mission is simple  to provide doctors in developing countries with the skills and equipment they need to tackle the scourge of avoidable blindness. Currently partnered with eight countries in Asia, Sight For All brings doctors to Australia for year-long training programs. If the local doctor’s English isn’t up to scratch, they’ll organise a reverse fellowship; where, over the course of a year, a team of Sight for All doctors will conduct the same rigorous training program in the doctor’s own country.

Dr James Muecke talks with CityMag

Dr James Muecke talks with CityMag

The striking thing about this model is just how sustainable it is. Indeed, because they’re operating at a grassroots level – as an ophthalmologist-led organisation – James and his team can work directly with doctors who are dealing first-hand with the problems. 

“We don’t go in to countries and tell our colleagues what to do,” says James. “We wait for them to tell us what they need – it’s a collaborative process, which leaves a much greater legacy behind.” 

What’s more, there’s certainly no shortage of volunteers willing to help out. 

This year alone, more than 50 eye specialists from across Australia and New Zealand will donate more than 10,000 hours of expertise. 

In just six years, Sight for All has built up an impressive list of accomplishments. In Myanmar, they’ve trained the first ophthalmic plastic surgeon, glaucoma specialist and paediatric ophthalmologist. The latter is something James is particularly proud of.  

“Dr Than Htun Aung spent a year training with us at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide. In the four years since he’s been back in Myanmar, he’s treated over 10,000 children as the only children’s eye surgeon in a country of 60 million people.” 

Considering Adelaide – with a population just over a million – has eight paediatric ophthalmologists, it seems an astoundingly off-kilter ratio. 

Planning future trips

Planning future trips

One day, James hopes Sight for All will be able to train enough local doctors to do themselves out of a job. But for now, there’s more than enough work to be done. From fundraising and marketing through to governance and the projects themselves, Sight for All has become James’s second full-time job.

“At times, it feels like I’m only just keeping my head above water. The charity’s developed into a significant entity, which has come with a huge amount of extra responsibility.”

The next hurdle for the team is to secure accreditation as an official development organisation with the Australian Government – something which will hopefully help them tap into much-needed funding resources.    

“In these uncertain financial times, donors start looking inwards,” he points out. “It’s difficult to find funding for projects in another part of the world, where people have little or no connection.”

There’s much to be said of James’s persistent tenacity. The work is not easy and there are setbacks aplenty. But despite this, James says he wouldn’t change a thing. “It makes my clinical practice and life here much more satisfying. I wouldn’t be happy in myself if I didn’t have this.” 

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