Saving gentle eyes - Lilly Stafford, Central Desert
Diabetic retinopathy and cataractsIn the harsh sun-drenched Central Desert of Australia, Aboriginal artist Lilly Stafford sees life in delicate shades. The colours of the spinifex, the richness of a tree’s bark and the depth and change in the dusty earth, these are the colours of her life.
Her inspiration, she says, is all around her. From the veranda of her home in the small community of Yuelamu at the edge of the Tanami Desert, she points to her colours; to the experiences and the land of her family.
Through her eyes Lilly translates the beauty of her land into paint. Her work hangs in galleries in South Australia and Victoria, and also in private collections throughout the world. Yet in the past seven years this masterful artist has almost lost her sight twice, once to diabetic retinopathy and then to cataracts.
Diabetes, or sugar sickness as it is known, is a big concern for the health of Indigenous people’s eyes. Diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading preventable causes of blindness in Indigenous Australians. A recent survey into Indigenous health found that in the past 30 years the rate of diabetes has soared – from less than half a per cent, to more than a third of the population. Alarmingly, most Indigenous diabetics are not getting their eyes tested to pick up signs of early retinopathy – early treatment can prevent 98 per cent of blindness.
Cataracts are also a leading cause of preventable blindness in Indigenous people. They cause more than a third of blindness in adults, and are responsible for about one third of low vision. Cataracts, which can be a normal part of ageing, cause the lens inside the eye to get cloudy and the eyes can become sensitive to light. Colours appear faded or yellowed.
Lilly’s first scare with sight loss happened in 2003. She struggled to finish a painting as the symptoms of sight loss caused by diabetic retinopathy started to show.
Lilly had two treatments of laser surgery to stop progress of the disease. Although some damage would be permanent, the surgery saved most of her sight. She also started to look after her diabetes.
Unfortunately, diabetes, and sometimes even laser treatment itself, can promote the growth of cataracts. In Lilly’s case, a cataract in her right eye started to grow and by 2008 it had almost completely obscured vision. Lilly needed surgery again.
This time, however, she would not be making the 600 kilometre round trip to Alice Springs alone. A new program at the Alice Springs Hospital that started in 1997 was bringing visiting surgeons and patients together for a week of intensive surgery. Most importantly, Lilly was able to travel with others heading to the hospital. Once in Alice Springs the local Fred Hollows Foundation, resident hospital staff and other community organisations worked together to support Lilly, making her stay and the prospect of surgery less daunting.
Lilly’s cataract was removed and her sight restored. She returned home able to see clearly.
“It was blind that side,” Lilly said with a hand cupping her right eye. “After the operation it is all good. I can see far. I can paint, do everything. I’ve been able to go hunting and get bush tucker.”
The success of the surgery week, now locally known as the ‘Eye Blitz’, has seen the program continue, and to date more than 450 people have had vision-saving surgery through the initiative.
The innovative approach to delivering eye surgery has been made possible through a wide-ranging health partnership that brings together the Fred Hollows Foundation, the Eye Foundation, the Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and the Australian and Northern Territory Governments. It is part of the Central Australian Integrated Eye Health Strategy.
But for Lilly, the quietly spoken great, great grandmother of the Central Desert, the biggest success of the initiative is the chance it has given her to teach her family the skills and passion of her art so they can continue in her footsteps. “I am teaching all the grand children and great grand children everything. It’s good.”
Thanks to the work of eye surgeons, governments, health workers and community-based agencies, Lilly is able to continue to create her artworks and to build the skills of future generations of Indigenous artists.
The Australian Government is investing millions of dollars to address both the symptoms of vision problems, and also the underlying causes of poor eye health in Indigenous communities.
It is providing more than $58 million towards the early detection and treatment of eye and ear health conditions, which includes funding for the intensive eye surgery weeks in Alice Springs and an increase in funding for the Visiting Optometrists Scheme. It also includes $16 million to boost services combating endemic trachoma in Indigenous communities.
The investment by the Australian Government is critical to supporting people like Tim Henderson, who are working at the coalface of Indigenous eye health.
For more information about what you can do to protect your vision or the vision of the people you care about, visit www.health.gov.au/eyehealth .
Page currency, Latest update: 14 October, 2010