John A. Hovanesian
When Marta Tooma, DDS, arrived in Fiji for a short stay
nearly 10 years ago, she offered her medical services to as many people as she
could in a small, makeshift clinic.
Now, a decade later, Dr. Tooma and her husband, Tom
Tooma, MD, an ophthalmologist, have expanded that makeshift clinic to a new
state-of-the-art medical and dental facility on the Fiji island of Vanua Levu.
Their work, the Mission at Natuvu Creek, is bringing
services to the many Fiji islanders who might not otherwise have access to
adequate medical care for cataracts, ocular concerns and severe dental pain,
Dr. Tom Tooma said.
A Fiji patient’s pterygium is examined at the Mission at Natuvu Creek medical center. The center is planning an ophthalmology surgical medical mission in February, to perform surgery on cases such as these.
Images: Tooma M
On the island where the clinic is located, there is only
one ophthalmologist to treat 250,000 people, he said. That ophthalmologist is 4
hours away by car from the medical center.
“The type of cataract that I mostly see there is
associated with an aging population,” Dr. Tom Tooma said. “It’s
probably because of lack of availability of care, that when people there find
out that an eye doctor is coming, those who can’t see well come in and
you’re overwhelmed with the number of cataracts that you see in one day,
as a proportion to the number of people that just basically need an eye
According to the husband-and-wife medical team, the
contrasts on the islands of Fiji are sharp: The country has the beauty of a
tropical paradise, alongside the untreated medical needs of hundreds of
residents. Dr. Marta Tooma said because residents have limited access to
medical care, their medical conditions can go untreated for some time, causing
pain and disability.
“There is a huge need,” she said. “It
seems like in all these places that you have a paradise, you also have great
The Toomas were inspired to start the medical center
after Dr. Marta Tooma’s initial medical foray into the country. She was
invited to provide dental care for children at a Fiji school by explorer
Jacques Cousteau’s former chief diver. At the school, she helped establish
a tooth-brushing program, which significantly reduced tooth decay in students
in the program, she said.
“One thing led to another. … Then, about 4 or
5 years ago, right next to where I started the little clinic, 850 acres of land
became available,” Dr. Marta Tooma said. “We looked into it, and it
was affordable, and we thought, ‘what better place to do a
state-of-the-art dental and medical clinic?’”
The Mission at Natuvu Creek joins other medical outreach
work on the island provided by Australian and New Zealander physicians, Dr. Tom
Tooma said. The mission’s medical center, which is open every day,
year-round, is staffed by a general physician, who provides basic medical care
to area villagers. The ophthalmic surgical teams will treat patients at the
clinic on a visiting basis, the Toomas said.
The medical center has been open since this summer, the
Toomas said, and is readying for the first surgical team visit in early 2009.
Fiji patients were recently examined by Tom Tooma, MD, and colleagues at the Mission at Natuvu Creek medical center. This patient manifests a cataract that is scheduled to be extracted at the center in 2009.
The inaugural ophthalmic outreach surgical mission at
the clinic is scheduled for February, with about 50 to 100 surgeries planned,
Dr. Tom Tooma said. After screening patients earlier this year, it was
determined that most will require cataract surgery, but there will also be
phacoemulsification and IOL implantation, with some pterygium cases, a corneal
transplant and several lid surgeries.
The incidence of pterygium is most likely related to sun
exposure on the island, he said. Few island residents can afford sunglasses,
and many are exposed to excessive sunlight.
For the first surgical mission, there will be three
surgeons and others who will assist in additional roles at the clinic.
Eventually, the Toomas said they hope to host three to four surgical team
visits a year, treating the backlog of cataracts and other ocular cases
requiring medical care and surgery.
The Mission at Natuvu Creek is always seeking
ophthalmologists who can give of their time to perform surgery at the medical
center. Volunteers are housed in the region, eating healthy food and staying in
safe and amenable quarters amid the beauty of the land and the kindness of the
Fiji people, Dr. Tom Tooma said.
“Once you go to Fiji, you will want to go there for
the rest of your life because of the people,” he said. “They’re
just gracious, giving, happy, content people who have nothing. … When you
finish giving someone there a service, just looking at their face and their
smile says it all. They’re just full of gratitude.”
– by Erin