Phyllis Dennis (right) providing a practical demonstration on Professor Brian Layland.
Walgett, NSW, Australia, 5 September 2017: Today we offer tribute to our one and only Phyllis Dennis (right), a proud Gamilaraay woman, who was a dedicated nurse and Aboriginal Health Worker in New South Wales (NSW) for a large part of her life. Sadly Phyllis passed away in a traffic accident on Friday 25th August.
For the past fourteen years, Phyllis had been the Regional Eye Health Coordinator at Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service, coordinating eye clinics between the communities and Brien Holden Vision Institute.
In her weekly work, Phyllis travelled across the vast open spaces of the NSW countrys conducting clinics at 23 Aboriginal communities in Wee Waa, Pilliga, Tamworth, Walhallow, Quirindi, Inverell, Armidale, Tenterfield, Tingha, Glen Innes, Narrabri, Mungindi, Toomelah, Boggabilla, Gunnedah, Coonamble, Brewarrina, Weilmoringle, Lightning Ridge, Goodooga, Collarenabri and of course her home town of Walgett.
More recently, Phyllis ran clinics at Wellington Aboriginal Corporation Health Service and was currently working as an Aboriginal Health Worker at Dubbo Regional Aboriginal Health Service. Yet her commitment to her communities and eye health never dimmed.
“Phyllis used to call me regularly asking if there was any new eye health training that she could join in to keep her skills up. She was a wonderful woman who used to make us laugh, we all miss her greatly,” says Colina Waddell, Project Manager, Aboriginal Vision Program NSW, for the Institute.
“We regularly run education programs for the Aboriginal Eye Health Workers across NSW, and Phyllis was always at these education programs. We loved her visiting our head office in Sydney. She was always interested in fine tuning her eye health skills, mentoring and encouraging the new Eye Health Workers in the field. She mentored Jenny Hunt who is the current Eye Health Worker at Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service, and to her credit Jenny is doing a wonderful job. Phyllis was always a great asset and dear friend to our NSW Aboriginal Vision team. Sadly she has gone too early, but we are grateful for her long term dedication and all that she has achieved in the communities over the years,” said Colina.
Professor Brian Layland, Chair of Brien Holden Vision Institute Board and consultant to the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Centre NSW was saddened by the sudden news. “Phyllis was responsible for eye clinics conducted by the Institute over a wide geographical area of North Western NSW for many years; she took an active part in training programs for eye health workers. We at the Institute and many, many Aboriginal people have benefitted as a result of Phyllis’s devotion and contribution to Aboriginal eye care. She will be greatly missed.”
Australian Optometry published a feature article about Phyllis and her work in the community in September 2011. In that story Phyllis was asked her opinion on whether the eye health programs have made a difference. Phyllis offered some interesting insights which we would like to quote here courtesy of a story written by Phil Anderton for Australian Optometry:
“She [Phyllis] said the main reason for their success has been the opportunity to provide a culturally appropriate interface between clinicians and communities. This is particularly important when novice clinicians come from the city and are unaware of usual cultural practices. Phyllis also highlighted the provision of spectacles from ICEE (now the Brien Holden Vision Institute) and VisionCare NSW (a New South Wales program) at no cost to those who need them as making a difference, as uncorrected refractive error is a barrier to education and employment, and there are many in the community who cannot afford to purchase spectacles from conventional sources and would otherwise go uncorrected.”
Teaching Aboriginal Health Workers to provide proper eye and vision screening services in schools, and the availability of no-cost cataract surgery from the Pius X Eye Clinic at Moree also helped, but Phyllis said there was a need for more similar clinics at other locations. She also said elders who led each community were becoming aware of the benefits of cataract surgery through their observation of experiences of others referred by visiting optometrists.
There is now more confidence in the benefits than there was prior to the Aboriginal Medical Service Eye Health Program.
"I hesitate to consider just how many Aboriginal people there are now in her communities who have avoided blindness and low vision because of her determination and the services provided in the clinics that she has organised. Most importantly, she has illustrated the benefits of Indigenous leadership to the establishment and implementation of the health services which are needed to bring the health and welfare of Aboriginal communities in line with those of non-Aboriginal Australia.”
Please click here and scroll to page 3 to read the full story written by Dr Phil Anderton for Optometry Australia.
Tributes to Phyllis Dennis
Nina Tahhan, Optometrist, Sydney.
“I will never forget my first eye clinic in Brewarrina in 2003 when I first met Phyllis. This memory has become etched in my mind and while I didn’t know at the time, that day marked the first day of more than 10 years of working in outback eye clinics with Phyllis.
I was a young optometrist keen to work in the field, and Phyllis told me much later, that first day we met was also her very first day as an Eye Health Worker. I feel that shared first day experience helped us bond in a very special way which I’ll always be grateful for.
Phyllis worked very hard, she was quiet and quite reserved as was her way. I never would have guessed all the things that were going through her mind that first day, these were discoveries that I only made later as I really got to know Phyllis but this was the kind of person she was. She had a lot of depth, knowledge, opinions and insights, but she was also very reserved (and polite) so you had to really get to know her before she would tell you what she was really thinking. All very valuable learnings as I discovered.
Phyllis was one of the most committed, hard-working, selfless people I have ever met. I loved working with her, she made work not only enjoyable but also feel more rewarding because she often gave me special insights into the effects the work had on people in the community, people she knew and cared for so intimately.
She loved and cared for her community in a way that will have very broad and long lasting effects. Her family must feel very proud of the woman she was and all that she worked for and achieved. I am proud to have worked with her and to have shared so many wonderful experiences with her over the years. I will miss her greatly. Phyllis taught me a lot.”
Bruce Turner, Optometrist, Moree.
“I first met Phyllis in about 2003 when she commenced work as the Eye Health Co-ordinator at the Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service. Her area of responsibility was north-west NSW and was about 120,000 square kms in size, from the Queensland border in the north, to below Gunnedah in the south, from Tamworth in the East, to Goodooga in the west. She had to drive over 35,000kms each year in work related travel.
A large part of Phyllis's job included organising eye testing clinics and school eye screening clinics in the many communities in her region. These communities included Inverell, Tamworth, Boggabilla, Toomelah, Gunnedah, Pilliga, Wee Waa, Narrabri, Collarenebri, Goodooga, Lightning Ridge, Walgett, Coonamble, Tingha, and others.
This was a massive undertaking and required someone who had the skills to liaise with health workers in many towns. As you could imagine, it’s not the easiest thing to go onto someone else’s turf and try to get them to facilitate your ideas, in particular, to set up regular eye clinics.
So how did she do this without standing on others toes? Well I can't tell you her 'modus operandi'. But those who knew Phyllis well would probably agree with this… She had this innate ability to get people on-side through her cheerful presence and friendly smile. With her ‘can-do’ attitude she was able to juggle her many responsibilities in such a way that allowed her to be extremely flexible and efficient. And when your job involved liaising with many other people, flexibility was a very important asset to have. Especially if you could do it without getting stressed out.
Phyllis also genuinely cared about her community and about delivering the best eye health-care possible. If she didn't care she wouldn't have done the hours she did. Quite often she would be on the road by 6.30 in the morning and have a 2 to 3 hour drive home after finishing a clinic and may not arrive home until 7 or 8pm. Somehow, in the midst of all this, she managed to find time to complete a course in Indigenous Eye Health at the University of NSW.
Although Phyllis was taken from us too soon, she has an impressive legacy. Phyllis Dennis was one of the ‘quiet achievers’ that helped make our community a better place. To Phyllis’s family, we pass on our sincere condolences.”