35 Years On – Founder Frank’s Vision is Clear
Our founder, Professor Frank Billson AO, has had a distinguished career in ophthalmology, but his work in preventing and treating blindness in the developing world is his continuing legacy.
Frank says Foresight began with a letter in 1978 from Bangladeshi ophthalmologist and freedom fighter Dr Rabiul Husain asking the Australian College of Ophthalmologists for help with curing more than a million people blinded by cataracts.
At that time, the college was focussed on administering and running a $1.8M Federal government grant to address blindness in rural and indigenous communities and was unable to take on the request.
Frank subsequently founded Foresight, which led Australian volunteer teams into Bangladesh, providing in-country service and teaching.
“I also saw an unacceptable rate of blindness from infection. Many people were contracting fungal infections in their cornea from the dirt in their walls in their homes. They were losing their eyes,” says Frank.
“We started bringing in medicine and trained local paramedics to study and treat these fungal infections.”
Frank says the vision of Foresight has been and always will be to empower locals in every country they have worked with, to set up and run eye clinics and continue the work after the Australian medical volunteers leave.
“I took microbiologists to nurses to help, but I also trained the people there and gave them ownership,” says Frank.
“I would insist on teaching local doctors, nurses or paramedics, even when I was operating, I would assist and help them to learn.
“We celebrated 1.3 million cataract surgeries in 2002, working across eight hospitals in Bangladesh.” Foresight Australia then went on to developing sight- saving programs in Sri Lanka, India, China, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, China, Vietnam and, more recently, in the Philippines.
“The future is full of promise but there is still such tremendous need. I don’t think our work will ever be finished,” he says.
Frank says that, even as a young practitioner, he felt it was always a privilege to be a doctor and treat people who couldn’t afford private care. Having suffered from tuberculosis for four years, he says he knew what it was like to be a patient and undergo major health challenges.
“I can’t stand unsolved problems and that drove me to help, by finding a solution,” he says.
“I discovered that what we needed was infrastructure, by training local paramedics to run the theatres in Bangladesh, teaching them how to give anaesthetic and provide post-operative care.”
Frank says that empathy is a defining human characteristic.
“You can never lose sight of the person. When we think carefully about someone in a developing country, who through no fault of their own is poor and in distress, you realise that it’s a chance that we are born into the families we have. Were we to be that person in need – how much would we value the help of someone who can give?”