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In memoriam: John Fawcett the legacy of a visionary

Duncan Graham
Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post

Malang | Wed, September 13, 2017 | 09:48 am
In memoriam: John Fawcett the legacy of a visionary

John Fawcett (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

In Australian vernacular, a “do-gooder” is a coarse and ambiguous synonym for a philanthropist. For some it’s a jocular endearment; for others a stain of contempt for uninvited interference in another’s business.

The sincerity of John Fawcett, 85, who died on Saturday, smothered every negative connotation. In the idiom, he was true blue — a bloke who did real good. Two million Indonesians know this to be true.

They elevated him to “Dr. John”. He did not claim the honorific, but was an expert on medical procedures, having endured many operations for spinal problems and the skin cancer that took his life. He well knew what happens when scalpels slip.

Which is how he came to spend his last 34 years in Bali, and why 50,000 Indonesians once condemned to the dark now have light. More than 1 million have been screened and treated for eye defects. Half a million now see through spectacles — all because one man turned his agonies into achievements to give the gift of sight.

The story starts in 1981 when Fawcett, then an art lecturer and potter in Perth, had an epidural to relieve back pain. The routine procedure went badly wrong. He spent more than two years prone, lost his job and family. Recuperating in Bali, he was treated with compassion by Wayan Mudiana and his wife Kisid — kindness he never forgot.

Cynics claim there’s no space left for Australian retirees, the refuse of First World efficiency. They’re supposed to quietly putt their way into the sunset, maybe mark time with some committee addressing envelopes rather than issues.

It’s the government’s job to handle health and social problems, not oldies with time on their hands. Australia’s loss — neighbor’s gain.

Eye check: UK ophthalmologist Tony Moriarty (right) examines a patient during his time in Bali as a volunteer consultant accompanying the John Fawcett Foundation’s team and local ophthalmologists on village visits. Eye check: UK ophthalmologist Tony Moriarty (right) examines a patient during his time in Bali as a volunteer consultant accompanying the John Fawcett Foundation’s team and local ophthalmologists on village visits. (johnfawcett.org/File)

In Bali, Fawcett chanced upon extensive cataract blindness seldom seen in Australia, and was shocked that an easy fix was unavailable. He became friends with banker and Rotarian Soeroso Patmodihardjo, which gave him local links.

The John Fawcett Foundation was set up using money from Rotary Clubs, the Australian government, companies, associations and individuals he inspired. It established mobile eye clinics and a hospital.

Although Fawcett’s work won plaudits (the Order of Australia in 2004 and the Indonesian president’s Satyalencana award in 2008), he was not a hero with some local medics who saw his activities reducing their incomes.

Fawcett said the issue faded as the foundation only treated those who could not pay and a new generation of altruistic medicos was emerging.

“They are keen to learn from Western doctors who give their time to advice on latest procedures — but Indonesian laws prohibit them from treating patients,” he said.

Fawcett was a restless, driven urger so our lunches were irregular. The last was in March, when he sought help to get Indonesian TV stations to raise awareness of cataracts through World Sight Day on Oct. 12. So far none have agreed. Perhaps his passing will help them see the need.

Fawcett did not brag of the triumphs but instead told of the torment he endured after persuading a family to let their daughter have a cleft palate operation; the girl died. “Had I not interfered she might have lived,” he mused. Risk is ever-present in surgery; less than 5 percent of cataract ops fail.

“I’m not religious, but my culture seems to promote compassion,” he said. “Some believe a person’s handicap or accident has been preordained by an omniscient and vengeful deity so intervention is useless.

“Errors in a previous life or recent sins rather than malnutrition, genetic defects and disease are accepted as valid reasons.” 

To counter such fatalism, Fawcett argued that the sufferer’s encounter with the foundation was also in the Deity’s master plan. And if the cause was diagnosed as black magic, the cure must be the white magic of medical science.

“Most Indonesians cannot understand what motivates foreigners to come here and volunteer,” he said. “When we explain that our services are free, they respond with surprise and disbelief.

“If you can’t pay in this country you just have to tolerate the disabilities and die prematurely.”

Outsider critics of the Indonesian health system are as unwelcome in government offices as foreign loudmouths are in Australian agencies. “If you don’t like it, go home,” is the response on both sides of the Arafura Sea. 

More than 1 million have been screened and treated for eye defects through the John Fawcett Foundation.More than 1 million have been screened and treated for eye defects through the John Fawcett Foundation. (johnfawcett.org/File)

For Fawcett, that stretch of water was highly symbolic. Growing up in northwest Australia, his family fled Broome shortly ahead of Japanese bombers in 1942.

“What Australians don’t realize is that the enemy advance was stopped by the resistance of the people of the islands — our closest neighbors,” he said.

“They supported us at our time of need. Now, where is our money being spent? The screws are on to close down our aid to Indonesia.”

In 2015, Australian aid to the republic was slashed by 40 percent.

“It’s daunting to know our government is not interested in Indonesia. I don’t want to think about it. Fortunately, others have an interest.”

Sight problems are not confined to Bali. Last year, Fawcett’s foundation ran programs in eight provinces. Such was the genuineness of his need that the Indonesian Air Force agreed to use its C130 Hercules to airlift the mobile clinic to outer islands.

Some reason that if Westerners are offering assistance there’s a catch. Either they are thieves filching donations, or subversives planning to carve up the unitary state.

If such motives are proved hollow then the foreigner must be out to “Christianize.” Fawcett added a new clause in the foundation’s mission statement to deflect such suspicions: “… to operate without alignment to any governmental, institutional, political or religious organization.” 

“In a country as religious as Indonesia, many can’t understand how care can be divorced from faith,” he said. “The idea of humanists having values with no strings attached is hard to grasp.”

Thus spoke the decent “dinky-die” Aussie do-gooder who helped others see. John Fawcett was a visionary.

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