After spending three years in a successful banking graduate role, Daniel Strachan decided that desk work wasn’t for him. Instead, choosing to follow in his parents footsteps, Daniel commenced optometry studies in 2012 and accompanied the Equal Health optometry team to India earlier this year.
In early 2013, optometry student Daniel Strachan was given the opportunity to join the Equal Health optometry team on their trip to India. Daniel, who is the son of Victorian optometrists Sue and Greg Strachan, chose to leave his role in International Business with a large commercial bank and commence optometry studies in 2012.
His interest in optometry in the developing world, however, had developed long before his return to university.
Sue Strachan is on the Australian National Committee of Optometry Giving Sight, and actively involved in the Equal Health program. The 2013 trip marked her eighth visit to India with the group. Daniel said this was a huge influence on his decision not only to study optometry, but also to become involved with Equal Health and Optometry Giving Sight.
“A main reason I was drawn back to university was due to the amazing work my mum has done volunteering, both here and overseas,” he said. “Over the years I have had the privilege of hearing many of mum’s wonderful and inspiring stories.”
“These stories demonstrated to me the importance of doing something to help others and the reward you can get from doing so.”
Daniel, along with Ellen West and Gerrard Schoofs, worked as an optical dispenser and assistant to the optometry team of Sue Strachan and David West. The trip was 16 days in total, and split between Kolkata, and Katwa, a region in West Bengal.
Each day, the outreach team – made up of optical, dental, medial and physiotherapy workers - would travel to a different rural village for the day to see patients. On arrival, the team could be greeted by a whole community, who were often armed with welcome gifts of flowers, fruit and tea.
Daniel described his role as an optical dispenser on the trip as the best job in town. “Upon receiving the patient’s prescription, we would forage our way though suitcases full of spectacles until we found an appropriate frame and prescription,” he said.
“After placing the glasses on the patient it was always a tremendous feeling seeing their reaction. Nearly every patient’s face would light up with a big, beautiful smile and often this would be followed by the touching of our feet and forehead, which is a local sign of respect and appreciation.”
While in Katwa, the Equal Health team stayed at ‘Anandanikitan,’ a local facility for physically and mentally disabled children. Daniel recalled the highlight of organising ‘India vs. Australia’ soccer and cricket matches with the local children; many of whom rarely get an opportunity to take part in sport.
“Often we would return home from the outreach trip during the day just in time for games with the local kids, which we all got a big thrill out of,” he said.
The chance to observe interesting and rare ophthalmologic conditions, as well as practicing some basic optometry skills, meant it was a unique clinical experience for an optometry student as well.
However, the trip was also not without its challenges.
As is the case with many community outreach clinics, the number of patients that would line up for an eye exam would often make up the entire village. Sadly, in some instances, time limitations meant that the optical team could not examine everyone. Similarly, some patients would present with conditions that were simply untreatable.
“There were a few occasions where a patient’s vision was so bad that there was nothing we could do for them,” said Daniel. “This was quite difficult and at times very confronting. Some people would beg that you do something to help them.”
Despite the challenges, Daniel said that the overall trip to India was amazing. “I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to participate and see firsthand, the impact that projects like Equal Health have on rural and underserved communities,” he said.
Optometry Giving Sight Australia has contributed funding to the Equal Health optometry teams since 2009, helping to fund the refractive error part of the project, and the provision of spectacles. Daniel said that he has been inspired become more heavily involved with Optometry Giving Sight, after seeing the impact that donations make on the ground.
“In Australia, I believe we often take our healthcare system for granted. Many of us would not be aware of the struggle that communities- like the ones we visited in India - face in terms of getting access to medicine, let alone glasses.”
As well as committing long term to volunteering his time as an optometrist once he graduates, Daniel is currently involved in fundraising for Optometry Giving Sight at Deakin University. His cohort of students has already started brainstorming for their World Sight Day Challenge efforts.
Ron Baroni, Australian country manager of Optometry Giving Sight, said it was extremely encouraging to see students taking such an interest in optometry in the developing world.
“We hope that future generations of optometry graduates are just as engaged as Daniel. It will be through their commitment and support that we have the best chance of ending global preventable blindness forever,” he said.
“Although there are not always opportunities to participate first hand, becoming a regular donor to Optometry Giving Sight is one way that people can know they are directly contributing to sustainable eye care projects, delivered by organisations such as Equal Health.”
Optometry Giving Sight guarantees that 85 percent of all donations go directly to projects.