Vietnamese boy visits Australia to thank the foundation that restored his sight

Professor Fred Hollows examines the eye of Tran Van Giap in Hanoi in 1992. Source: Michael Amendolia

The poster boy for the Fred Hollows Foundation arrived in Australia this week from Vietnam to express gratitude to the organisation that helped restore his sight twenty five years ago.

Vietnamese man Tran Van Giáp was just seven when a glass shard hit him in his right eye in 1992.

He was playing with his friends on the street in a village 400 kilometres from Hanoi when the accident happened.

"I felt a lot of pain and I couldn't see anything," he told SBS News.

His father took him to doctors at several hospitals in the region who all said they couldn't help him.

So his father travelled to Hanoi's Institute for Ophthalmology. But it was to no avail.

"The doctors said they could not help. We were about to go home but we saw a crowd in the hospital courtyard with some foreign doctors," he said.

"My father kept pushing me forward to Fred, and he grabbed me and looked at my eyes. At first I felt really scared but later I felt happy because the doctor paid attention to me."

Several days later, Dr Hollows organised Nepalese ophthalmologist Dr Sanduk Ruit to perform a complicated operation on Giáp's injury and finally restored his sight.

Dr Ruit had accompanied Dr Hollows to Vietnam on his Fred Hollows Foundation Cataract Program International to train eye doctors in modern techniques.

Watch: Giáp tells of his achievements after his sight was restored

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The operation would also prevent an infection in Giáp's injured eye from transferring to his other one, which the doctors feared would make him blind in both eyes.

Twenty five years later, Giáp has come to Australia for the 25th anniversary of the Fred Hollows Foundation, a charity set up by Dr Hollows and his wife, orthoptist Gabi, in 1992 - before Dr Hollows passed away from metastatic renal cancer in February the following year.

Giáp said the sight-restoring surgery motivated him to contribute to society and he became the first in his family to graduate from Hong Duc University in Thanh Hoa, about 150 kilometres south of Hanoi, where he studied to become a mathematics schoolteacher.

"The operation opened up many opportunities for me. I tried my best to study and make use of those opportunities [to become a teacher]," he said.

He now teaches in Ho Chi Minh.

Tran Van Giap teaching Year 12 maths at Truong Thpt School in Ho Chi Minh city
Tran Van Giap teaching Year 12 maths at Truong Thpt School in Ho Chi Minh city.
Michael Amendolia

Ms Gabi Hollows, the founding director of Fred Hollows Foundation, said she was proud of the work the foundation had achieved.

"Fred wanted to assure people that there were no double standards in opthamology, you never treated anybody any differently, so his public or his private patients got exactly the same treatment," she said.

In 1985, Dr Hollows travelled to Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh with the World Health Organisation where he saw the need for better and more affordable eye care such as locally produced intraocular lenses, which are used to treat cataracts.

Gabi Hollows with Giap on his trip to Australia for the 25th anniversary of the foundation.
Gabi Hollows with Giap on his trip to Australia for the 25th anniversary of the foundation.
SBS

He soon facilitated local communities in Nepal and Eritrea to establish factories that could produce intraocular lenses cheaply.

Despite being diagnosed with cancer in 1989, he continued working to prevent blindness of people around the world.

In 1992, Dr Hollows discharged himself from hospital in Australia to travel to Vietnam to train more than 300 Vietnamese eye specialists in modern cataract surgery techniques.

Watch: Ms Hollows talks about who are most affected by treatable blindness

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It was on this trip that Giáp and his father had their chance encounter with Dr Hollows.

After he passed away, his wife Gabi took the reins.

She arrived in Vietnam six weeks after Fred's death to kick off the training of 330 eye doctors. The mission was finished three years later but she has kept in touch with Giáp ever since.

Prime Minister Paul Keating receives a gift from a successfully treated patient, Tran Van Giap, while visiting Vietnam in 1994.
Prime Minister Paul Keating receives a gift from a successfully treated patient, Tran Van Giap, while visiting Vietnam in 1994.
Supplied by Fred Hollows Foundation

Vietnam's 'revolution of cataract surgery'

The foundation's Vietnam country manager, Dr Phuc Huynh Tan, was one of those doctors the foundation trained.

He said Vietnamese eye care had improved greatly since Dr Hollows arrived.

"In Vietnam they call it the 'revolution of cataract surgery'," Dr Phuc told SBS News.

"Most of the surgeons, they did the operation in the old technique [before Dr Hollows arrived]," he said.

"They open the eye, they remove the cataract out, they close they eye and that's it. The person had to wear glasses, very thick glasses."

Dr Hollows introduced the intraocular lens and provided microscopes. The procedure changed so that the surgeon would remove the cataract lens and put the intraocular lens in to replace it, "so the person can see clear, without the thick glasses".

"Not only training, the foundation has also provided the equipment, for the modern technique," he said.

Vietnam now has 1,000 surgeons who can perform 250,000 cataract surgeries every year, according to Dr Phuc.

Fred Hollows Foundation Vietnam country manager Dr Phuc Huynh Tan (left) and Giap in Sydney.
Fred Hollows Foundation Vietnam country manager Dr Phuc Huynh Tan (left) and Giap in Sydney.
SBS

Ms Hollows said the foundation had made significant progress in 25 countries since its inception.

"We've doubled and tripled our programs, and all the other programs around the world, we really are catching up and it's a real snowball effect so it’s a pretty amazing outcome," she said.

In the past 12 months the foundation has supported sight-restoring eye operations and treatment to nearly 900,000 people, trained nearly 65,000 surgeons, health workers and teachers, and treated more than 8 million people with antibiotics for trachoma.

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