The 2020 Australian of the Year, ophthalmologist James Muecke, plans to use his new title to increase awareness about the debilitating consequences of diabetes, but behind the scenes he has had to face his own health challenge.
- Dr James Muecke has devoted his career to treating and preventing blindness
- He says a neurological condition that affects his right hand has forced him to stop performing surgery
- He is calling for a tax on sugar to help prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes
The Adelaide eye doctor has spent about three decades working to prevent and treat blindness in some of the world’s poorest countries.
“We’re now seeing fantastic results. Children are surviving and they’re actually keeping vision, which is immensely satisfying,” Dr Muecke told 7.30.
“I loved the idea of doing very fine work with my hands and so microsurgery was always something that appealed to me as a doctor, and that then drove me down a pathway of ophthalmology.
“I loved the idea of surgery on the eye, such a delicate structure.”
In a cruel twist, Dr Muecke has revealed he has been forced to stop doing the surgery he loves because of an inherited medical condition.
“Unfortunately I have a neurological disability which I’ve inherited from my father, which is impacting on my ability to use my right hand,” he said.
“Fortunately it’s not a life-threatening condition but it is a career-destroying condition.
“In the next year or two I’ll have to bow out of my medical career sadly.”
Having tackled some of the most confronting eye conditions, Dr Muecke is philosophical about his own medical challenge.
“I’ve met many people in my life who’ve had much tougher battles and their resilience is incredibly admirable,” he said.
The condition has forced Dr Muecke to change his focus from surgery to advocacy.
Call for tax on sugar
He plans to use his Australian of the Year title to lobby hard for measures to tackle obesity, which can cause type 2 diabetes. The dietary-caused disease can cause blindness.
“Diabetes is now affecting one in 10 of our population,” he said.
“Every year I’m seeing more and more patients who are losing vision as a result of this disease, a disease which is actually entirely preventable.”
Dr Muecke is calling for a tax on sugar and said confronting advertising, similar to anti-smoking campaigns, was warranted.
“The government can help by reducing the time and space for sweet products, particularly during children’s TV,” he said.
“I think we need to have a clearer labelling system of sweet products, and for those products with high sugar content, taxing would be very important to help people choose lower sugar alternatives,” he told 7.30.
‘He’s an inspiration’
Diabetes cost Neil Hansell his eyesight. He is now the face of Dr Muecke’s campaign to highlight the debilitating consequences of the disease.
“Basically I went to bed one night, woke up the next morning and everything was black,” Mr Hansell said.
“I would describe Dr Muecke as being very, very passionate at what he does, extremely loyal to all the people who come and see him.
“He’s an inspiration really. I put him up there with Fred Hollows, he’s that good.”
It is an obvious comparison, but Dr Muecke said he was forging his own path.
“Well Fred [Hollows] was an absolute Aussie hero, he’s a legendary character, he was an ophthalmologist like myself. Fred’s passion was cataract blindness — that is the leading cause of blindness in the world.
“My agenda is that there are quite literally hundreds of eye diseases, many of these are blinding and some are deadly,” he told 7.30.
Dr Muecke’s charity work goes back decades. In 2000 he co-founded Vision Myanmar and a few years later Sight for All, an organisation which uses Australian and New Zealand eye specialists to train overseas doctors.
“We’ve trained colleagues across many of the poorest countries in Asia, including Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, and ultimately our projects are now impacting on roughly a million people every year,” he said.
Watch this story on 7.30 tonight.