While most of the country wakes on Christmas Day to the prospect of family gatherings, sharing gifts and celebrations, somewhere in the world, at least one Australian, who works in eye care, will be celebrating in a different manner.
This is the story of Sydney based ophthalmologist Dr. Geoffrey Cohn. He will spend this Christmas period deep in the heart of the much closed society of Myanmar (formerly Burma).
The present he says he will receive this year is the knowledge that he is giving many locals the precious gift of sight.
Myanmar, with its population of 55 million, has one of the highest rates of blindness in the world caused by cataracts (64 per cent), glaucoma (17 per cent), trachoma (4 per cent) and other causes (15 per cent). It has 40.4 per cent low vision in rural areas of which almost three quarters is due to cataracts.
It will probably be very similar to last Christmas when the Japanese team wore red Santa caps and threw a Christmas party, which was very funny because they are all Buddhists
Despite these staggering statistics, the country is poorly serviced with eye care professionals as it only has a couple of hundred ophthalmologists, most of whom only service the Myanmar’s largest cities.
This Christmas, just as he has done a number of times before, Dr. Geoffrey Cohn will be in the Myanmar jungle town of Wachet, a small village on the river about an hour away from Mandalay.
“I am going there on 11 December for four weeks and I will plunge into work immediately,” says Dr. Cohn.
That work will include 32 cataract operations a day starting at 8am. He’ll then go down to the clinic and sort out what the locals have not managed to work out and do a lot of angle laser. Then he’ll have a meal (Dr. Cohn is a gluten-free vegan) and give lectures in the evening.
Inspired in South Africa
Dr. Cohn’s prolific pro bono work began in his birthplace of South Africa where he graduated as a medico in the 1970’s before spending time in the Kalahari Desert treating the locals for all sorts of medical complaints.
“I found that although I could help deliver babies and treat other general complaints, there was a real problem with preventable blindness, so that inspired me to want to do something about it,” Dr. Cohn says.
Dr. Cohn left his homeland to spend four years at the University of New South Wales to become an ophthalmologist before returning to the African continent in 1981. There he put his new skills to good use, working for the next two years as the only eye surgeon for 2.5 million people in Bophuthatswana in north-western South Africa.
“In two years we treated 75,000 people as well as training local doctors and nurses in basic eye skills,” recalls the 58-year-old ophthalmologist. In 1983, Dr. Cohn returned to Australia, but was still determined to do everything he could to alleviate preventable blindness in third world countries.
Work in Bali
With Perth Rotary, he decided to help create a cataract free zone in Bali, by introducing the operating microscope and lens implant for the first time, and also, by training locals to do the procedure.
“We initially built a mobile operating theatre in Perth from a second hand school bus and that ran around the island with four teams. We now have three buses in Bali and one in east Java and we have extended into a few of the other eastern islands.”
Ten years later, Dr. Cohn was invited to design an eye care program for Papua New Guinea. As a result, he made seven trips there, initially to develop the program and then to teach their registrars.
Then it was off to Cambodia where he worked with a team to accelerate the training of eye specialists, a desperately needed skill because of the genocide of the Pol Pot era.
“In Cambodia, glaucoma was a problem and so too was eye trauma. Cataracts were also a problem, particularly in the young. More than a quarter of the cataract operations we were doing were to 25 year-olds and younger. We trained locals to handle the problem and they have done brilliantly. I am very proud of them,” says Dr. Cohn.
Dr. Cohn’s Myanmar odyssey began eight years ago when he was challenged by a local Sydney lady who fled Myanmar as a refugee to set up an eye clinic in her country.
Convinced that band-aid solutions weren’t the answer to the blindness burden of Myanmar he set about, with his team, to train locals to do most of the work.
“We opened the vitreoretinal program in Wachet. The idea was to teach people from Mandalay to do vitreoretinal surgery for which there is a desperate need.
“We put in the equipment and trained the auxiliaries. Some Australian surgeons are training the Burmese surgeons. Unreservedly, they are very, very good surgeons.
“Primarily what we are doing is supporting the surgeons by training ophthalmic technicians who do almost everything except for the operation. They write down the history, they examine, they take the pressures and they draw conclusions. Then they assist in the cataract operation and do the post operative care. This means the surgeons only have to operate, which allows them to use their time more efficiently.
“One of our centres at Mount Popa is a beautiful monastery on the side of a sacred mountain. There are two million people in that district and there is only one ophthalmologist who is absolutely swamped.”
Dr. Cohn’s plan for this coming Christmas visit is to go to Mandalay to talk to eye surgeons, then to the Golden Triangle for a day, “as our permanent team of four teachers has set up a program there in a town called Loikaw.”
Then he’ll go on to the town of Bogale which was devastated by a cyclone two years ago.
On Christmas Day, Dr. Cohn and his oldest son Daniel (who is teaching the locals English) will have a very low key celebration.
“It will probably be very similar to last Christmas when the Japanese team wore red Santa caps and threw a Christmas party, which was very funny because they are all Buddhists.” he said.
Dr. Cohn set up the ‘See Again Myanmar’ as a Christmas gift that keeps on giving. He says it’s similar to ongoing successful projects in Africa, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Cambodia.
Asked why he continues to do this pro bono work, Dr. Cohn says: “As an undergraduate, I wanted to heal the world, but it was hard to find a place to start – because nothing looked manageable. Now, I’ve found bite sized issues that I can take on – and I can actually see progress being made. That’s irresistible and every time I’m there, I see more happening.”
“I stand back and see my team teaching refraction and physiology, explaining pathology and why that pupil is abnormal. I burst with pride. It couldn’t be more gratifying and satisfying.”
Dr. Geoffrey Cohn is the chairman of the RANZCO Foreign Aid Committee, a position he has held within the college since 2004. In 2010 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to ophthalmology, and to overseas aid programs fostering improved eye-health services.