Life-changing work

The long medical career of Dr Gerard Sutton has been peppered with confronting and profound experiences, but an event on a working visit to South East Asia in 2004, remains forever etched in his memory. It is a vision the eye doctor will never forget.

“When I arrived at the hospital late in the evening, there were thousands of patients waiting to see him. Over the next few days I had to make a decision as to which of them would receive the four corneas. It was heart breaking and even now I feel emotional thinking about it. ”– Dr Gerard Sutton

Dr Gerard Sutton with trainee surgeons at Yangon Eye Hospital in Myanmar.

The long medical career of Dr Gerard Sutton has been peppered with confronting and profound experiences, but an event on a working visit to South East Asia in 2004, remains forever etched in his memory.

It is a vision the eye doctor will never forget.

Dr Sutton recently returned from Cambodia, where he is involved in the establishment of a corneal eye bank.

A Sight For All Visionary for the past three years, he has visited Cambodia many times since 1997, at a time when the murderous Khmer Rouge were still in control of parts of the conflict-ravaged country.

Working in Siem Reap in 1998 as part of a surgical skill exchange program, Dr Sutton and his co-volunteers became aware that some of the nurses and staff at the hospital were extorting money from patients, most of whom were poor farmers.

After the senior Australian surgeon, Dr Geoff Cohn, complained, the team started receiving death threats. Some years later, when the political climate had stabilised, Dr Sutton returned to work in Cambodia and is now the co-chair of the emerging nation’s International Advisory Committee.

The experience is just one of many the Professor of Ophthalmology Sydney University and Visiting Professor – University of Medicine Mandalay, has had while on humanitarian tours.

But it was on a working visit to Myanmar in 2004 that Dr Sutton saw something which profoundly changed his view of the world.

Currently, Dr Sutton’s principal focus is the Myanmar Corneal and Eye Bank Program which he established in Mandalay in 2014.

“The goal is to impact corneal blindness by training local surgeons in corneal surgical and transplantation techniques and improving access to corneal tissue through an efficient eye bank,” Dr Sutton said.

“We now have four fully-trained corneal surgeons in Mandalay and have increased corneal tissue availability from the eye bank by 300 per cent.”

Dr Sutton’s drive to see the eye bank succeed in Myanmar, was inspired by that fateful day in Mandalay fifteen years ago.

“In 2004, having done some cataract skill exchange programs in Cambodia, I was asked to visit Myanmar to assess the apparently common corneal blindness,” Dr Sutton said.

“I took along four corneas from the NSW Eye Bank.

“What I didn’t know was that the hospital I was visiting had placed an advertisement in Myanmar’s national newspaper saying that an Australian surgeon was coming.”

When Dr Sutton arrived at the hospital late in the evening, there were thousands of patients waiting to see him.

“Over the next few days I had to make a decision as to which of them would receive the four corneas,” he said.

“It was heart breaking and even now I feel emotional thinking about it.

“I vowed at the time that if given the chance, I would try and do something to address the problem of corneal blindness in the country.”

A few years later, a chance came for Dr Sutton to make good on his vow.

“When Myanmar began to open up I met and started a long-term friendship with Professor Yee Yee Aung,” he said.

“We had a meeting with the Health Minister and received approval for our Corneal and Eye Bank Program.”

Sight For All has been on the ground in Myanmar for many years.

“When I met Dr James Muecke, we realised we were kindred spirits with the same hopes and dreams for the people of Myanmar,” Dr Sutton said.

“Sight For All has been a great help in supporting visiting corneal surgeons, providing in-country training and equipment.

“I have visited Myanmar on 15 occasions and the surgeons I have trained have become my friends.”

Dr Sutton believes his involvement in Cambodia and Myanmar has been one of the most satisfying aspects of his medical career.

“It’s hard yakka but when you see the results and know that the surgeons you help train will be preventing and treating blindness for decades to come – and teaching other surgeons – you know you are really planting those metaphorical trees that will provide shade long after you are gone,” he said.

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