• A patient attends a free mobile eye health clinic on Palm Island. (NITV)Source: NITV
A mobile eye clinic, designed to stamp out avoidable blindness in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, is changing lives on Palm Island.
Ella Archibald-Binge

Living Black
22 Feb 2017 - 3:11 PM  UPDATED 22 Feb 2017 - 3:14 PM

Aunty Barbara Lenoy describes her home on the shores of Palm Island as "paradise".

The shack is roughly assembled with sheets of corrugated iron and upright wooden poles, complete with a wood-powered stove, a generator for electricity and a couple of double beds on the verandah: "room for my family when they come to visit".

"Tourists pay a lot of money to go to the beach and that, and look, I live here free until they tell me to get!," laughs Aunty Barbie, as she likes to be called.

But the 64-year-old worries her little piece of paradise may one day be little more than a memory.

She's one of at least 200 Palm Islanders living with type two diabetes. Left untreated, the illness can cause blindness, which is up to 10 times more common amongst First Nations people over 40.

This outcome should be preventable, but on Palm Island, remoteness and social poverty make it difficult to access the healthcare that most Australians take for granted.

"Our mob have all access roadblocks that prevent us from getting there," says Dr Raymond Blackman, an NRL footballer-turned GP, who spent much of his childhood on Palm.

"That might be having to look after kids, that might be not having a car, that might be not having support at that moment in time to go and see the doctor."

But a new model of treatment has started visiting the island every few months.

The Indigenous Diabetes Eyes and Screening (IDEAS) van drives up to 80,000 kilometres each year to run free eye health clinics in eight communities across Queensland, including Palm Island, Toowoomba, Cherbourg, Hervey Bay, Bundaberg, Charleville, Mount Isa and Rockhampton.

Its mission: to stamp out avoidable blindness in the state's Indigenous communities.

"Ophthalmology equipment is usually only in city-based hospitals," says IDEAS Van CEO Lyndall De Marco.

"If this was really going to help the people who needed it most, it would be those people who didn't have access to the city-based hospitals.

"So how do you get $900,000 worth of equipment to each of those country hospitals? That's an impossibility. But if you put it all in a giant caravan, you could take it to each of those places where the treatment can happen in their own community."

The groundwork is laid before the van arrives. Community health workers use a special camera to photograph the eyes of their diabetic patients. The photos are sent to Sydney for grading, and each patient is told whether they need to attend the van.

"It allows to have world state of the art equipment and professionals to come here and treat our people," says Dr Blackman.

Visiting specialists work alongside local Aboriginal health workers to make sure patients can attend their appointments.

The van has an attendance rate of 87 per cent.

"I think it's entirely due to the work of the Aboriginal medical services," Ms De Marco says. 

"They work so hard to get their patients the right treatment. But we also always park the van on their land, at their place, in their community, and so it becomes their van."

Aunty Barbie is one of the van's patients. The local medical service, run by the Palm Island Community Company, provides a bus to drive her 10 minutes into town for her appointment.

A visiting ophthalmologist has found a small aneurism in one of her eyes, and issued strict instructions to stop it from threatening her sight: "get your sugar really well-controlled, blood pressure controlled and your cholesterol".

Another of the van's regular patients is 68-year-old Joe Reuben, who also has type two diabetes.

A few years ago, he started having problems with his eyes, which made life on the island difficult.

"How can you do your cooking, and go for a walk to buy your groceries, or go fishing and all that?" he says. 

'I'm really happy, and really glad to see like before.'

Thanks to early detection, Uncle Joe was able to identify and treat his cataracts. After months of working hard to control his diabetes, his vision is near-perfect.

"I'm really happy, and really glad to see like before, can see clearly," he says.

"I'm very proud when they bring the van here, because it's helping our people here on Palm Island... get their sight back again, clear the cataract and make them more happy, so they can see things more clearly like when they were young."

The state government funded van has treated more than 2000 people over two years.

CEO Lyndall De Marco hopes the model will provide a blueprint for the future of remote health.

"I think it's the future, I really do, not just for ophthalmology. But the most important thing is maybe, the people in rural and remote Australia may have access to a level playing field if this sort of model can be extrapolated right across the country."

WATCH: On board the IDEAS Van in Palm Island

Watch the full story on Living Black here