TRAIL BLAZER: Dr Kris Rallah-Baker, Australia's first Aboriginal ophthalmologist, was on duty for the IDEAS van recently. The Emerald van will return to the region every eight weeks.
TRAIL BLAZER: Dr Kris Rallah-Baker, Australia's first Aboriginal ophthalmologist, was on duty for the IDEAS van recently. The Emerald van will return to the region every eight weeks. Taylor Battersby

Kris keeps an eye on those in need in CH

A VISIONARY in more ways than one, Australia's first and only indigenous ophthalmologist, Dr Kristopher Rallah-Baker, has embarked on a trip to Emerald in an effort to help regional communities access critical, life-changing eye care.

Dr Rallah-Baker, who completed his five-year ophthalmology training in April last year, said among the 20 patients he saw in Emerald at the end of last month, many had cataracts and were unable to get to Rockhampton for eye appointments and surgery.

His expedition to Central Queensland took place as part of a new initiative - possibly a world first - with the IDEAS van, otherwise known as the Indigenous Diabetes Eyes and Screen van, which is a $2 million ophthalmology, optometry and imaging specialist centre complete with the latest equipment.

In partnership with CQ Health, the van's potential to help people has been extended from indigenous communities - where it has worked to reduce visual impairment among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with diabetes - to remote and regional towns across Australia.

"One lady had virtually no vision and yet with a cataract operation she should be OK,” Dr Rallah-Baker said.

"But there was no way possible she could have got to Rockhampton.

"She had learned to live with it and I think had resigned herself to living with legal blindness.”

Dr Rallah-Baker said people with eye problems such as cataracts reached a point where they couldn't drive and, as the cataracts worsened, they became less able to see clearly, which increased their fall risk and that in turn increased their risk of hip fractures.

He said the Emerald IDEAS van, a "world-class facility”, would return to the region every eight weeks.

"Of the people I saw, they all needed to be seen and probably one in two patients needed some sort of operation,” he said.

"A big part of that is the fact that to see an ophthalmologist they have to travel to Rockhampton and because of family, physical or financial reasons they simply can't travel that far and that's why it's important for the van to go to them.”

Dr Rallah-Baker, who is also president of the Indigenous Doctors' Association and AMA federal councillor, said that 20 years ago there were very few Aboriginal doctors, let alone specialists.

He said currently there were 500 indigenous doctors in Australia, however parity with overall figures of medical graduates would be 3000.

"And we don't have a dermatologist yet,” he said.

"We've got a bit of a way to go but to get this far has happened all in 20 years, which I think is phenomenal.”

Dr Rallah-Baker - who in January was appointed director on the board of the federal Royal Flying Doctor Service - said he had been inspired to help forge a path for other indigenous Australians by fellow Jagera man the late Neville Bonner, Australia's first federal indigenous parliamentarian.

"I am where I am because of great people before me,” he said.

"If it wasn't for the freedom fighters in the 1970s and people arguing for their rights in the missions at the risk of horrific punishment, if it wasn't for the early warriors who tried to resist the invasion and protect their families, I would never have had the opportunity to achieve what I have.”

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