20th anniversary of the Fred Hollows Foundation


It was the single moment captured for a lifetime, an image that cemented Fred Hollows' amazing legacy – and helped save more than a million people from a life of darkness.

Two decades ago a desperate Hanoi father thrust his blind nine-year-old son into the arms of the visiting Australian eye surgeon Fred Hollows and asked him to do what no Vietnamese doctors could. That plea was captured in the iconic image taken by Daily Telegraph photographer Michael Amendolia, and has graced bus stop billboards around Australia ever since.

Today that boy, Tran Van Giap, is a 28-year-old maths teacher working at a Ho Chi Minh City high school while also studying for his master's degree.

Reunited with Hollows' widow Gabi to mark the 20th anniversary year of the Fred Hollows Foundation, Giap said: "The operation completely changed my life.

"After receiving the eye surgery I decided I had to do something good for the others too just like Professor Fred."

In the decades since Fred Hollows launched his ambitious bid to prevent curable blindness around the world, the foundation that bears his name has exceeded even his optimistic expectations. Funded mainly by donations from Australians, it has helped restore the sight of more than one million people in 20 countries in the developing world.

Gabi Hollows said there was something about shy little Tran Van Giap that appealed to her husband in 1992, on his last visit to Vietnam before he died of cancer five months later.Giap's right eye was a mess after a shard of glass lodged in it two years earlier, and the other eye was on its way to oblivion. His father, 55-year-old rice farmer and war veteran Tran Duc, had made the expensive 170km trip by bus from their farm in the village of Hoang Dai to Hanoi's ramshackle Institute for Ophthalmology in a last-ditch effort to save his youngest child's eyesight.

The pair waited 25 days in the hospital, only to be told nothing could be done.

"We were about to go home," Giap said.

"Then a car came into the hospital and my father told me to run and ask the professor."

His wife Binh added: "It was a work of destiny that he met Fred and had surgery."

Giap's father died two years ago but his mother Le Thing, 71, burst into tears when recounting the story of her son's eyes to Binh after their wedding last December.

"She was much moved about the situation at that moment because they're really poor," Binh said.

"A chance to get surgery was a miracle for the family."

Giap said he was a typical "naughty" boy before his surgery. But when his sight improved, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

"After surgery, when I had good vision, I studied harder," he says. "I used to feel so different to my friends when I went to school and my eyes were no good. After the surgery I felt more confident.

I thought I could do better than anyone."

Today he and Binh live in one 3m by 4m room behind a light shop in a Ho Chi Minh suburb.

They do everything in that stiflingly hot, windowless, spotlessly clean room, with the incessant barking of a dog next door. They cook noodles on two gas burners.

Giap's aim is to become a professor one day, so he studies for his masters degree sitting cross-legged on a bed which is covered with a traditional hard straw mat and takes up half the room.

Every night he spreads his books on a low Winnie the Pooh folding table facing his precious library of maths texts and Vietnamese short stories. The eyes Fred Hollows saved have been put to good use.

While Giap is quietly spoken and smaller than most of his charges, his classroom falls silent when he speaks. Teachers hold equal place with doctors as the most revered people in Vietnamese culture.

"Even though my eyes not as good as your normal eye," he tells his students, "it's a big motivation for me to try hard in everything for my life to be for the benefit of others."

Folded in his wallet, Giap carries a dog-eared photocopy of the iconic photograph that captured the moment he met Fred Hollows 20 years ago. The sweet face is caught in a moment of fear and hope, eyes held open by the firm hand of the visionary doctor who never shirked a challenge.

"I was very scared at that moment," Giap said.

"But Dr Fred gave me a very special gift for life."