New Eye Hospital: Bali

With its massive, black steel gate, white concrete columns, ubiquitous surveillance cameras and swarm of soldiers at the front gate, the brand-new facility evokes the atmosphere of a closely guarded, off-limits military installation.

In fact, it isn’t a military building nor would it serve any military functions.

The building, which stands across the street from the Denpasar sports center in the Kreneng area, is the Australia Bali Memorial Eye Centre (ABMEC), the latest gift of goodwill from the people of Australia to the people of Bali.

Through AusAID, the Australian government provided around A$7 million for the construction and provision of equipment, the training of over 120 personnel and the establishment of two mobile outreach eye clinics at the ABMEC.

The steel gate and surveillance cameras, on the other hand, are permanent installations. Over nine CCTV cameras monitor the facility and its premise around the clock, supplemented by several electronic security systems, the details of which were not disclosed.

The ABMEC is definitely the most secure health facility on the island.

The reason for this vigilance is simple: terrorist attacks remain a real and present threat in Bali. Moreover, the facility is part of Howard’s $10.5 million Bali Memorial Package pledged following the brutal bombings of 2002, which killed 202 people, mostly Australian nationals.

Security aside, the facility also brims with state-of-the-art medical equipment. The most obvious display of such technology can be seen in the ABMEC’s two operating rooms, each of which is equipped with a large-screen monitor.

During surgery, the monitor is hooked up to tiny cameras embedded in the tip of surgical tools, enabling surgeons to get a clear, magnified view of the patient’s eyes.

“It is also equipped with a set of high-resolution, low-heat lamps, which is a very critical equipment in an eye surgery,” said AusAID advisor Peter Brophey, who guided local journalists on a brief tour of the facility.

Meanwhile, a dedicated Internet connection will stream real-time video of an ongoing surgical procedure to medical students in a conference room some 20 meters away, and, if required, to medical experts abroad.

“It can assist the students in acquiring vital knowledge on the procedure. The Internet also can facilitate our commitment to provide the patient with the best service, by providing our clinicians with instant access to consult their counterparts abroad for advice and second opinions,” said Brophey.

Yet, it was the facility’s commitment to the poor that astounded the tour’s participants, more than its electronic security system or its high-tech medical equipment.

“Approximately 70 percent of patients treated at ABMEC will receive free treatment,” Brophey stressed.

This holds great significance for Bali, where the World Health Organisation has estimated that the number of blind people reaches roughly 50,000. The area also with 3,200 newly blind people each year, of which some 2,080 are cataract blind.

A majority of such patients come from rural, poor families and wouldn’t be able to afford expensive eye surgery. The limited number of active ophthalmologists — only 18 are active currently, had only exacerbated the problem.

“Cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in Bali. ABMEC will double the number of cataract surgeries performed in Bali from 3,000 per year to over 6,000 by 2010,” Brophey said.

The ABMEC, once it is fully operational, is to play a major role in reducing the island’s backlog of as many as 24,960 cataract blind patients who are marginalized, uninformed and poor. The center will begin treating patients in September.

In addition to the ABMEC, Howard’s Bali Memorial Package also includes the 12 October Australia Memorial Centre — a new intensive care unit at Denpasar’s Sanglah Central Hospital — and the Bali Memorial Medical and Health Scholarship.

I Wayan Juniartha