Am I My Brothers Keeper? Fred Hollows Gives Us The Answer.


This post has been a while coming because it is so close to my heart. I took days to write the first draft assuming everyone would know who Fred Hollows is. Forgot the old saying that to assume makes an ASS out of U and ME! Fortunately a friend looking at my site pointed out that many people reading it are from America and England. Wow! I thought it was amazing, still do. I am new to the net and hadn’t really thought about it being world wide and yes, I still write letters and use snail mail. There is something special about letter I think it may be tactile, you touch the paper and you feel the writers energy. If it’s from a loved one you feel their energy, you connect and it’s almost as if you hug even if it’s years after they have gone. Yes, I love letters but in a different way, in its ability to connect me to the world I am starting to love sharing through this new (to me) medium. So I have started this post again and this time I will try to explain just why Fred Hollows is known so widely in Australia and why he is so loved and admired.

The label most commonly given to Fred Hollows is, “famous eye-doctor.” It is definitely a most appropriate label, but he was so much more. He achieved so much more in his lifetime, that label just seems so inadequate. I first became aware of Fred Hollows some years ago when I was preparing to be married. I had never been married before but I had a fully furnished home and everything I needed. My husband to be also had his own place with everything he needed. When we announced that we were getting married our friends immediately started giving us engagement presents, beautiful gifts that I still treasure and use. The love that they showered on us was amazing and I still feel overwhelmed and blessed to have these beautiful people as friends, but there was a problem: we already had too much, we didn’t need anymore. People suggested we ask for money and use it to pay for the honeymoon. It just didn’t feel right for us. What to do? At first we had no idea, then out of the blue we thought of the practice my husband to be had started with his grandchildren. Each Christmas he would give each of them an amount of money to go shopping with. He would then take them shopping to buy whatever they wanted. After shopping and a lunch out they came home and went online to find a charity they liked and he gave them an equal amount to donate to their chosen charity. Great fun was had doing this with the older children sometimes urging the younger to pool their money. This seldom worked as the youngest loved animals and always wanted to buy pigs or goats with her money. His hope in doing this was to nurture their compassion and develop an awareness of the benefit of giving as against receiving things that were by their very nature impermanent. (Buddhist teachings have had a huge influence on him.)  The grand children all have great parents, who have also focused on their becoming caring, unselfish adults and now we all wait hopefully, as they now begin their life’s journey. Sorry, I digress back to Fred Hollows.

We decided we would ask our friends to donate to charity rather than buy wedding gifts. We went online and found that the Fred Hollows Foundation could restore a blind person’s sight for $25 Australian. That was it! We contacted them and they sent us beautiful envelopes that we sent out with the wedding invitations. We had 110 friends invited to our special day (the invitation list whittled down from 374 as the venue only catered for 100…getting married later in life is not easy!) and to know that so many people received the gift of sight because of our love being consummated still fills us with a joy that no other gift could ever bring.

After the wedding the Fred Hollows Foundation sent us a letter of thanks and a list of those who had donated. We had no idea up till then of how many people were helped, we were amazed! We had simply placed a wishing well near the entrance for guests to put their envelopes in. Many guests had flown in from interstate, one from as far as Tasmania, or travelled long distances to reach the Northern Rivers where we live and they all needed to pay for accommodation, food etc. Knowing this we thought some might not be able to find the extra to give. Their generosity amazed us, most of our friends are far from rich and it was wonderful to see that almost all had not only donated the suggested $25 but gave extra. I am sure it gave them as much joy as it did us. The Foundation also sent us a beautiful book on Fred’s life. It was this that really opened our eyes to how much difference one person can make to the lives of others in this world.

There is a link to the Fred Hollows Foundation on the side widget and if you can spare $25 Australian you too can experience the joy of knowing someone can not only see the beauty of this world again but also have an easier life with far greater opportunities.

It was while reading the book on Fred’s life that I became fascinated by him as a man. Fred spent his life for others. What motivated Fred to put so much back into life? He was quoted as saying, before he died of cancer in1993 “I hope I have given more to life than I have taken…” He certainly had!

I discovered it wasn’t Fred’s deep faith in Jesus and his saving power, for although Fred was raised by parents who were staunch members of the Church of Christ; Fred became an agnostic. While he was studying for the ministry at the University of Dunedin in New Zealand the crunch it seems finally came.  He was serving as an aide at a mental hospital and he saw how patiently a group of untrained men were caring for those in the ward These men were not religious, yet they showed extraordinary kindness.  I read that “Fred’s upbringing had up till that point led him to think of life outside the Church as miserable, joyless and a sure road to damnation.” Observing these men changed Fred forever. They had no way of knowing how their kindness to others would change not just one mans life but through him the lives of thousands of others. Fred stopped studying to become a minister before he graduated and no longer professed himself a Christian. How he must have struggled in making this decision. How common this story is of people losing their faith, good, intelligent, caring people. A great sadness of our great religions: that their most publicly fervent supporters are often the fundamentalists hijacking a life-affirming sense of openness. Often these people are going against the very tenets of the religion itself in a blind fear of “the other”, tenets of tolerance, forgiveness, compassion and in the case of Christianity brotherly love. We are all our brothers’ keepers in that we influence each person whose path we cross, for good or bad, to do so blindly, without a natural sense of openness and empathy is unwise. Wisdom flourishes by withholding judgement. Jesus himself told us to “judge not less you be judged” Judgement is the enemy of openness. Judgement is learnt. When you find you have been taught one untruth it is easy to question all you have been taught by that teacher, it is little wonder so many give up on religion. It’s O.K. to say you don’t know, you’re unsure: perhaps preferable.

H e changed courses, from divinity to medicine and after graduating did post- graduate work in ophthalmology in the U.K. He then gained valuable experience in Wales before accepting in 1965 a professorship at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He become head of the Ophthalmology Department of the near by Prince of Wales Hospital. Once again his life’s experience was to change his path. Here he met his first aboriginal eye-patients who had been sent to him by the Gurindji tribe in the Northern Territory.

This encounter was to set Fred on a course that he could never have envisaged. Up until then, he had read a bit about the plight of Aborigines but hadn’t taken much of it in. When the Gurindji committee invited him to go back with two patients to the Territory, Fred jumped at the chance and took a couple of other doctors with him. What he discovered on examining the Aboriginal stockmen of Watti Creek shocked him- eye diseases of a kind and degree that hadn’t been seen in western society for generations.

The next day he saw all the women and the day after that, all the children. Ten years and many medical surveys later, he had ticked all the boxes for the government and finally Fred was to head the two year National Trachoma and Eye Health Programme, which called on 80 eye surgeons to donate their services and several teams of full-time workers to provide eye care for 465 Aboriginal communities..

Fred refused an honorary Order of Australia during the programme (he was still a New Zealander at this stage), as a protest against the pitiful state of aboriginal health generally. Because of his outspokenness and his eagerness to help leaders in the aboriginal communities to do something about it, there were by the time the time of his death over 60 aboriginal health services in Australia, run mainly by Aboriginal people. We have one in Casino the nearest town to our home. It is wonderful and is making great improvements in the health of the many Aboriginal people living in the communities around this area. There is still a long way to go, Aboriginal people today still live far shorter lives and make up a larger percentage of the people with some chronic health issues, such as heart disease and diabetes, but at least now some positive change seems to be taking place. Thanks to Fred and those like him who give tirelessly to help others.

Fred’s eye-health crusade also took him to Third World countries. His most significant work overseas was done in Nepal and Eritrea.   The Nepal Eye Program consists of Australian- sponsored eye-camps all over the country, where well-trained local people perform excellent surgery. Another important contribution That Fred has made to these countries, one which will bear fruit for many years to come, is the establishment of locally based intra-ocular lens (IOL) factories. These greatly reduce the cost of lenses and make them affordable for those who are relatively poor. On his third visit to Eritrea, Fred developed and trained “barefoot doctors” who perform cataract extractions and lens implants- an operation that takes just 20 minutes and requires very little space and equipment. This program enables countless people to see again that would otherwise never had access to a fully trained doctor. Fred saw solutions not difficulties. No eye- doctors, simple train someone to do the procedure. What a different world it would be if we had more like Fred.

Fred had no patience with bureaucracies and avoided dealing with them wherever possible. Even Prime Ministers were not spared his wrath if he felt they were not doing enough to relieve the plight of the most needy. He received a number of national awards and honorary degrees for his humanitarian work but his greatest joy came from looking into the now seeing eyes of a fellow human being. Fred died after a long battle with cancer in1993 and is buried in the outback town of Bourke, where he conducted one of his first aboriginal eye-health projects. He is survived by his wife Gabi, his five children to her and an older family from an earlier marriage.

It seems Fred’s only sense of eternity was his belief that the quest for human liberation would go on in succeeding generations. Not afraid to say “I don’t know”, he said when asked about there being life after death, that he was not a bit sure. Nothing he did then was motivated by the though of reward in the hereafter. What appears to me to be the value that most drove his life was the equality between all people. This was the value he upheld strongly throughout his life, neither money nor where people lived was important to him. Fred Hollows didn’t call himself a Christian but he certainly lived the life that Christians aspire to.

He didn’t call himself anything; he was a man of action not labels and titles. He was simply Fred Hollows, human being. We know him today as many things but most of all we know him as being an expansive human being who questioned why things couldn’t be better and then setting out to make them better. Too big to be pigeon holed and put aside in a soon to be forgotten box,  Fred Hollows lives on, still changing the world for the better.

Before he died, Fred Hollows-dedicated eye-doctor, sometime larrikin, social activist and loving husband and father- said he hoped that he had given more to life than he had taken. This hope was one expressed in a piece of verse by the American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. These lines of the poem hung on Fred’s office wall and you would think they were written with him in mind.

To laugh often and much,

To win the respect of intelligent people,

And the affection of children,

To earn the appreciation of honest critic

And to endure the betrayal of false friends,

To appreciate beauty,

To find the best in others,

To leave the world a bit better,

Whether by a healthy child, a garden patch

Or a redeemed social condition,

To know even one life has breathed easier

Because you lived,

This is to have succeeded.


Never having had the privilege of meeting Fred Hollow I will never know for sure what drove him to be the extraordinary human being he was, but around me in country Australia, I see a few others who like him give their lives to the service of others. They battle the odds and try to make a difference. One man, Darcy Goodwin started a soup bus taking food to those in need. He has passed on but his work continues. A local doctor, Chris Ingall pushed for a Cancer facility in near by Lismore. He travelled miles talking to people about the suffering of those who had to travel many up to 5 hours a day, day after day to get radiotherapy treatment. He inspired people to do something. So tired, with bags under his eyes that aged him ten years, he sat through endless after work meetings. At first the authorities said he was grandstanding but as people became aware of the unnecessary added suffering of people with cancer they petitioned government in the tens of thousands and today Lismore has an amazing state of the art Cancer Care Unit. Others, inspired rose up, fundraised and shamed the government into providing units to house the patients so they didn’t have to travel long distances for weeks, day after day, while so sick. Still others started a transport service for those close by but too sick to drive. People stepped up, one by one inspired by others. Together they made a huge difference to the suffering of people around them and their families. Few can manage to change the world on the scale that Fred but they weren’t trying to change the world they were just trying to make their little bit of it a more caring, equitable place and that was after all what Fred did. He started with what he saw around him, looked at it and worked out what he could do to make it better. Like him they are doing their bit, making life better for others one act at a time. The verse by R.W Emerson seems to be their mantra as well.

What a different world we would have if we all stepped in and did our bit. So many possibilities, as it says in the words of a famous song “from little things, big things grow”

So much to change! But if we have the will…Fred’s will anything is possible!

Perhaps we all need that poem on our wall!

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