It was May 2016, and I’d taken my kids – Zac, 19, Matt, 15, and Adrian, 13 – to Nias Island in Indonesia for a family surfing holiday.
Leaving them to continue catching some waves, I decided to cool down with a beer at a nearby beach bar.
As I sat sipping my drink, I got chatting to a fellow Aussie, Matt, who was also on holiday.
‘The people here are so friendly and they barely have anything,’ I said. Matt agreed. He’d visited lots of times and knew some of the locals.
‘There’s one woman named Fitiria and there’s something wrong with her Raf’s generosity changed one woman’s eye,’ he said. ‘It’s huge and bulging out of its socket. Heartbreaking.’
Matt started to cry as he explained he desperately wanted to help her but didn’t know how.
By complete chance, I’m an eye surgeon.
‘Maybe I can help,’ I said to Matt.
He thought it was worth a shot, so we made plans to meet the next day so he could introduce me.
A local expat called Mark, who can speak Indonesian, also came along to translate. Arriving at the village where the family lived, I couldn’t believe it. Their home was a tiny mud hut.
Knocking on the door, we were greeted by Fitiria’s husband Widdey and were welcomed inside.
I felt a pang of sadness as I saw Fitiria, 41, in person for the first time. It looked like her left eye was exploding out of the socket and now it was dominating half of her face.
I’d seen a few cases like this where there are tumours behind the eye, but nothing ever as big as this. In Australia, they’d be treated long before they reached this stage.
With Mark translating, I found out more. Starting off as a small lump ve years earlier, it had gradually grown in size.
Local doctors had confirmed it was a benign tumour and urged her to fly to the capital, Jakarta, for surgery to remove it.
But with five kids and barely any cash, there was no way Fitiria could afford the treatment.
I have to do something, I thought. Poor Fitiria was extremely embarrassed to be seen out in public.
But not only was her appearance devastating for her, there was also a chance the tumour could spread to her brain. She was in constant pain and unable to work, which meant the family was struggling financially on only one income, which was just $30 a month.
‘I want to take it out as soon as possible,’ I said.
Fitiria’s face lit up with joy as Mark translated my promise to help.
Discussing logistics with Mark and Matt, we agreed that the best idea would be to fly Fitiria and her daughter, Febri, who can speak English, to Australia, where I would do the op for free.
We just needed to raise the cash to get them there. And while I wasn’t charging for the surgery, we’d need money to pay for her after-care as she recovered in hospital.
We worked out it would cost around $20,000 in total. Mark’s wife Sharon suggested setting up a GoFundMe page to help with the cost. Sharing the link, it was exhilarating to watch generous donations flood in from people all over the world.
And six months on, we nally had enough money.
It then took another six months of arranging visas and flights until we could fly Fitiria and Febri over. When she arrived in hospital, I felt shocked all over again seeing Fitiria’s eye.
It had grown even bigger and up close it looked like squashed grapes.Fitiria had a scan to show the type of tumour she had so we knew the best way to operate on it.
Surgery took a few hours and unfortunately it was too late to save the sight in her left eye. But when she came round, I explained to Febri that we’d managed to remove all of the tumour, and she then translated to her mum.
It was incredible to see Fitiria’s happy reaction to the news. Both she and Febri had tears trickling down their faces. It was a very emotional moment.
‘Thank you, we’re so grateful,’ Febri said. Once Fitiria had recovered, she flew home to the rest of her family.
Two months later I flew over to fit Fitiria with a glass eye. Staying in touch with Febri, she told me when her mum got a job. It was fantastic to hear how her life had improved since the operation.
Now I fly over regularly to catch up with them and our families have become close.
On my trips I’ve realised that sadly Fitiria is just one of many on the island of Nias suffering from something they can’t afford to treat.
It’s inspired me to open a clinic there, where we can help more of the locals. Many volunteer nurses and doctors have already signed up and we’re currently renovating a building and raising money.
There are plenty of people out there with a similar story to Fitiria’s and I’m determined to do all I can to make a difference to their lives.