A meeting with the passionate Professor Fred Hollows made a lasting impression on Dr Peter Stewart, writes Christen Hill.

Most people in the medical profession are driven by a desire to help others but Dr Peter Stewart, a Brisbane ophthalmologist who pioneered laser cataract surgery in Australia, deserves even higher praise.

For the best part of a decade he’s spent his holidays performing life-changing surgery on the coral islands of Kiribati in Micronesia.

It was a meeting with the passionate and dedicated Professor Fred Hollows that made a lasting impression on Dr Stewart. At the time, Dr Stewart says he was a jack of all trades but master of none. He’d been a bush doctor for six years but admits he often felt helpless.

“You’d refer people away for a 1000 mile round trip to a specialist but I found the most fruitless referrals were the ophthalmology ones, so I thought bugger it, I’d better learn a bit more about ophthalmology,” he said.

Almost forty years later he’s regarded as one of the most progressive and innovative eye surgeons in the State after pioneering ‘no stitch’ cataract surgery in Australia in the early 1990s.

The founder and medical director of Laser Sight is just as passionate as the late Professor Hollows about restoring sight, particularly to those less fortunate.

For more than eight years he’s volunteered his services on the Kiribati islands, literally giving the gift of sight to hundreds of islanders suffering from crippling cataract formations due to a poor diet and the high levels of UV exposure that go hand-in-hand with living on a coral atoll.

“They walk to the clinic with their hand on the shoulder of a relative, because they can’t see, even to walk,” he says.

“In the early days we just did one eye because that’s all resources would allow us to do but more recently we get there on day one and do their first eye and we do their second eye on day three.”

He says the reaction when they regain full sight after the cataract surgery is heartwarming.

“They’re not very demonstrative. You’ll ask how many fingers and they answer, but with a big smirk on their face, because they can see.”

Dr Stewart says many of them have been living in virtual blindness for years, when by comparison Australians are often panic stricken at the slightest inkling of obscured vision.

“We don’t put up with as much before we seek attention.”

Dr Stewart and the Pacific Island Projects (PIP) team performed 114 surgeries during their eight day mission earlier this year. He’ll return to Kiribati once again at the start of 2015 for another round of what is essentially life changing surgery.

“Sight is the sense that we value the most, emotionally at least,” he says.

Vision2020Australia estimates that by 2020 more than 800,000 Australians over 40 will experience vision loss and of those, almost 103,000 will be blind. While the figures are concerning, blindness is most common in developing nations. Between 40 and 45 million people worldwide are considered blind and 90 per cent of them are in the developing world.

It can profoundly impact quality of life for the blind person and their community, with life expectancy usually less than half that of someone with eyesight the same age.

Now 66, Dr Stewart says he’s planning to return annually to Kiribati, for the next few years, at least.