Real Life

How Fred Hollows’ legacy lives on

The Kiwi hero’s widow is dedicated to continuing his work

Fred Hollows was dying and he knew it. Desperately ill in hospital, there seemed little hope that he could complete his last eye-surgery mission in Vietnam. Yet not even cancer could stop the gruff, stubborn and compassionate Kiwi once he made up his mind.

Determined to get to Hanoi as promised, the famed ophthalmologist took drastic action. “He just tore the tracheotomy tube out of his throat and discharged himself from hospital,” recalls his widow

Gabi, 69, still in awe of his courage and commitment. “Fred was very sick then, so everything was pretty raw, but none of us thought he would pass away a few months later.”

The enduring image of that final trip features Fred examining the eyes of eight-year-old boy Tran Van Giap, whose sight was saved by a simple operation the following day.

Thirty years later, as the Fred Hollows Foundation celebrates its anniversary, the “bittersweet but beautiful” photograph remains central to its crusade – to end avoidable blindness.

This famous photo remains central to the foundation’s campaigns.

Fred’s legacy

Since the charity was established on 3 September 1992, it has restored the sight of more than three million people globally and delivered more than 200 million doses of antibiotics for trachoma.

“It’s a wonderful, magnificent, amazing kind of story,” smiles Gabi, who has worked tirelessly for the foundation since Dunedin-born Fred’s premature death. He was only 63 when he passed away in 1993.

“There are so many things I’m proud of, but mostly I’m just honoured by the people who have believed in us and donated to us. We couldn’t have done any of it without this community.”

Left alone with five small children to raise, grief-stricken Gabi rapidly became the foundation’s matriarch, fundraiser-in-chief and guiding spirit. Fred’s legacy survives thanks to her, in no small part.

Fred and Gabi with daughters Anna-Louise (centre) and twins Ruth and Rosa.

“She is the real unsung hero,” says her son Cam, 40, now a GP in Australia. But put that to his mum and she shrugs off her achievements.

“Well, you know, I’m just me,” she laughs. “I’m not an angel, not a saint. They call me ‘Gabby Gabi’ and I do have the gift of the gab, although I talk too much and speak in figure-eights. The kids say they never know what’s going to come out of my mouth!”

Gabi O’Sullivan first became interested in medicine when she had surgery to correct a squint at the age of three. Deciding to become an orthoptist, she met Fred during her training in Sydney. There was an instant connection.

“The first words I ever had from him, he was telling us all off in a lecture,” she recalls. “But I was never shy or scared of doctors because I’d been going to eye clinics since I was a child. Fred was such a livewire, so outspoken, so passionate, we just connected. There was this incredible click and away we went.”

Indeed they did. Aged 22, Gabi joined her husband-to-be on Australia’s National Trachoma and Eye Health Programme, treating more than 100,000 people at remote indigenous communities.

It was a life-changing experience, not least because the couple fell in love. Marrying in 1980, their wedding cake was a map of their travels on the trachoma programme.

But there were many more journeys – to Nepal, Eritrea, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar – performing countless operations, training local surgeons and building low-cost lens factories.

By the time he died, Fred had become a living legend. Given an Australian state funeral, he was buried in the outback town of Bourke, in the red dirt that he loved.

Fred’s work in Vietnam has helped the country greatly reduce incidences of trachoma.

Continued work

In 1996, Gabi tied the knot with Sydney lawyer John Balazs, who had lost his first wife to cancer. “I never thought I’d end up with another beautiful man,” she says fondly, relaxing at the historic Randwick home where her children grew up.

“We had no idea we would get together. It’s a crazy story. His late wife had the same oncologist as Fred. But John is great. Our kids absolutely adore him. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without his support.”

Looking back, Gabi reflects, “I’ve had a lot of bittersweet moments. Sometimes I wonder how many tears I have left. The saddest thing is that Fred never lived long enough to see his children grow up or

meet his grandchildren. If I could speak to him today, I’d hold up one of the intra-ocular lenses we now make in our own laboratories and he’d be astonished. It was always a dream, but we never thought we could achieve that.

“So if Fred could rise up from the nine tonnes of granite on his grave, I’d say he’d be doing cartwheels all the way down the highway. And it’s all thanks to the thousands of people who have supported us.”

To donate to The Fred Hollows Foundation, visit hollows.org.nz.

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