Needy come first for eye specialist

From Manawatu to the villages of Fiji

KELSEY FLETCHER
Last updated 08:29 20/12/2013
Eye doctor
MURRAY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

SEEING CLEARLY: Pahiatua ex-pat Johanna Forrest has achieved her goal of helping others through her work at The Fred Hollows Foundation as an optometric trainer in Suva.

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Throwing away a comfortable lifestyle in Manawatu for the villages of Fiji was easy for Pahiatua ex-pat Johanna Forrest.

The optometrist, now working as an optometric trainer for The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ, simply had to follow her ambitions and help others in need. A former student of Tararua College, Ms Forrest took up studying biomedical sciences at Victoria University in Wellington before completing a Bachelor of Optometry in Auckland.

"When I left school I was very interested in biology and human biology and was fascinated by it all," she said. "I've needed an optometrist myself for eye problems, so the eye and seeing just became something I was interested in - I walked down the road and ended up there."

Ms Forrest worked in Auckland for two years after completing her degree before Manawatu called her back.

"A job came up in Palmerston North at Eyes on Broadway so I came back for two years," she said. "But it didn't fill my hopes. I enjoyed it to an extent, it was interesting, but I didn't so much like the commercial side of it - there was just something that was missing."

So when a six-month contract beginning in July came up at The Fred Hollows Foundation's New Zealand Eye Institute in Suva, Ms Forrest jumped at the chance.

"I was living here in Palmy two years and had a really good job, great bosses and my life was very comfortable," she said. "But I thought ‘well if you don't do it now, you're never going to do it'."

The foundation carries on the work of the late Professor Fred Hollows, an internationally acclaimed eye surgeon and social justice activist from Dunedin, who championed the right of all people to high quality and affordable eye care.

The foundation's New Zealand arm works in the Pacific Islands, Papua New Guinea and East Timor, where four out of five people who are blind don't need to be because their condition is preventable or treatable.

In the past five years, the foundation has performed nearly 1 million sight-restoring operations and treatments, and trained more than 38,000 local eye health specialists.

Ms Forrest said her new job teaching islanders optometry skills was in stark contrast to working in city clinics in New Zealand.

"One thing is you'll have an 8.30am appointment here and [the patients] turn up at that time, whereas in Suva they turn up when they want to turn up, so that took some getting used to," she said.

"The language barrier can be very difficult. There is Fijian and then there is the Hindi side of it, so there are two languages going on.

"There are a lot who know English but there have been occasions when I've been stuck, so I'm learning Fijian over the summer."

Ms Forrest will return to the Pacific Island nation in January, after signing a one-year contract.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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