Real Life

The woman keeping Fred Hollows’ memory alive

Fred Hollows' widow, Gabi, is the heart and soul of the Fred Hollows Foundation.

It’s been 23 years since celebrated Kiwi eye surgeon Fred Hollows died of cancer, but his widow Gabi still sees his face everywhere.

It’s hard not to – his portrait is plastered on bus stops and alongside bequests for the Fred Hollows Foundation – you’ll even see his name on the back of rickshaws in Bangladesh.

Long after his death at the age of 63, Fred lives on.

“It’s a wonderful thing because it means his living memory is still alive,” says Gabi, who set up the charity with her husband when he was diagnosed with cancer.

Fred’s dream was to restore sight and end avoidable blindness among the poorest of the poor – those in developing countries who don’t have access to eye care.

Since his death in 1993, Gabi has worked tirelessly for the foundation. They’ve helped millions of visually impaired people around the world by establishing labs, clinics and training doctors to work in 26 countries from the Pacific to Africa.

Gabi has since remarried, tying the knot with John Balasz, a lawyer from Sydney, in 1996.

“John often says he sees more of Fred than he does of me!” she laughs. “He’s been the most amazing husband – I couldn’t have done what I do without his help.”

Together, the couple raised six children, the five she had with Fred – Emma (41), Cam (34), Anna-Louise (29), and twins Ruth and Rosa (26) – as well as John’s daughter Kate.

“Our door was always open – when doctors came overseas to train with Fred, they often stayed with us,” reveals Gabi. “This continued long after he died.”

Fortunately, their home, Farnham House, where Gabi still lives with John and Guinness, their border collie, is a sprawling mansion in Sydney’s Randwick. Her children have all since left the nest and are working all over the world – something that keeps Gabi up at all hours.

“I always say you’re awake more when they’re big than when they’re babies!” she jokes. “They’re travelling all over the world and you know two in the morning for me is three hours behind for Emma who’s working in Malaysia, and 16 hours behind for some of the others.”

The couple always saw eye-to-eye about the importance of their foundation.

She likes to keep her family’s lives private, as the Hollows name comes with a certain amount of attention.

“Cam, my son, he did medicine and you kind of have to turn your name tag around because people automatically assume he’s an eye doctor,” she tells, but pride swells in her voice when she speaks of her children.

“They’ve all grown into amazing, compassionate, bright people – I attribute that to all the wonderful people they had around them growing up.”

Like their parents, they’ve all gone on to pursue careers that give back in some way.

While Cam is a doctor, Emma is an environmental scientist and Anna-Louise a nurse. Rosa studied carpentry and hopes to give aid to development projects overseas, while Ruth currently works in IT, but wants to become a project manager for a non-profit organisation.

The Hollows with three of their daughters, Anna-Louise (centre) and twins Ruth and Rosa.

Now 63, Gabi is still the matriarch of the foundation, visiting the many clinics they’ve set up around the world and watching some of the doctors they’ve trained in action.

Just a few weeks ago, Gabi was in Vietnam, where she caught up with Tran Van Giap – who was just eight when Fred saved his eyesight and changed his life. This was 25 years ago – when Fred was dying from cancer – but the iconic photograph of Fred examining Giap’s eye remains the charity’s brand image.

“Now this boy is a maths teacher, he’s married and he has two children,” tells Gabi. “When you give someone back their sight, you give them back their life.”

Gabi’s enthusiasm and passion for the cause is infectious. And the result of her commitment speaks for itself.

Worldwide, the Fred Hollows Foundation gave 890,000 eye operations and treatments last year, including 137,216 cataract operations, it screened 3.4 million people for eye disease, trained 232 surgeons and 64,000 other eye health workers.

Gabi with the picture of Fred and Tran van Giap before the eight-year-old’s surgery in 1992.

Last year, she received the inaugural Ryman Prize, a $200,000 international award, in recognition of her work. She split the funds between Nepal, the birthplace of Fred’s dream, and New Zealand and Australia. Much of it went towards running the new state-of-the-art eye clinic in the Solomon Islands.

“I was incredibly proud, but that prize wasn’t just for me, it was for everyone,” she says. “If it wasn’t for all the wonderful people who contribute to the foundation and believe in Fred, then we wouldn’t be able to do what we do – that’s what gives me my energy and the buzz, that so many people have helped his dreams come true.

“Fred would be doing cartwheels in heaven,” she says smiling.

To make a donation and help the Fred Hollows Foundation end blindness around the world, call 0800 227 229

Words: Ellen Dorset

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