Farewell to a man of vision

The eyes, it is said, are the windows to the soul.

Which is why I remember meeting John Fawcett about 24 years ago. While they were often shielded behind a pair of glasses, John’s eyes were display windows to an extraordinary soul. And, as I was to learn, they were symbols of what it meant to be given a second chance at life.  

I had met John, because I was doing a profile story on him for television. I was reporting on John’s work in Bali, where he was changing lives with a mobile clinic for cataract surgery. 

John had moved to Bali in the 1980s not to change lives but because he had felt his was all but over. 

John had been an acclaimed ceramics artist and teacher in Perth. He lived in the hills above the city with his family. Life was good. Except for a bad back. He had tried a range of treatments but there was no relief. So in May 1981, he had an epidural to deal with the pain.

Something went wrong. John told me how he felt as though he was in a fish eye in the ceiling of the room, watching medical people working on him. Suddenly, he was back on the table. Then he was back up in the eye, looking down on his life ebbing away.

John was revived. But not to the life he had known. He had to spend many months in hospital and rehabilitation centres regaining his movement and coordination, his memory, little pieces of himself. He came to realise he would not be returning to who he was. 

John decided to move on his own to Bali, a place he and his family had loved as a holiday destination. He figured it was a nice place to spend what was left of his life.

But something extraordinary happened. A young Balinese couple he had befriended during his previous visits heard that John was back, and that he was ill. They cared for him around the clock. Against all expectations, John regained his health. He went to Perth for back surgery but then returned to Bali.    

In this culture where many believe in reincarnation, John felt as though he had been given a new life. He wanted to give as many others as he could the same opportunity at a second chance at life. He wondered what he could do. He didn’t have to look far.

John noticed a lot of people whose eyes seemed to be covered with a milky white blob. He learnt an estimated 45,000 Balinese were blind, and many of them couldn’t see the beauty of their island home because of cataracts. What’s more, many simply couldn’t afford to see again. The operation to remove the cataract and insert an artificial lens could cost a patient the equivalent of years of income. So many remained in darkness. Until John came along.

He decided to set up a mobile clinic for cataract surgery, to drive the service into the villages and have Balinese medical teams provide operations for free. In establishing the mobile clinic, John linked two countries. A Perth school’s old mini-bus was converted into the mobile clinic, and the RAAF transported it to Bali. Rotary clubs helped fund the program, and Australian ophthalmologists and nurses gave their time to train the local staff. 

When the bus first hit Bail’s roads in 1991, there was resistance from potential patients. John recalled how many believed it was “karma pala”, or destiny, to be blind. But then John seized destiny. When a blind man told him that reason for refusing to enter the bus, John replied, yes, but it was karma pala that his team was there in the village. The man had the half-hour operation. The following day, he could see. 

Word quickly spread about this bus and, when it rolled into a village, more and more people were ushered forward by loved ones to receive what seemed doubly miraculous - to have their sight returned, and for free. The program was so successful it was taken to other islands in Indonesia. About 50,000 people have had their sight restored through the John Fawcett Foundation.

Each time the pads were peeled off the eyes, and the realisation dawned on the patient’s face they could actually see again, John’s face would erupt with a smile. “It always gives me such a buzz to see this!,” he exclaimed, as we watched the joyous outcome of one operation.      

Yet John did not just stop at eyes. He saw people in need all around him. As well as establishing the mobile clinic, John had set up a corrective surgery program for those with a cleft lip or cleft palate. After the 2002 Bali bombings, he arranged treatment for local victims. Indeed, when people in crisis ran out of all other options or money, they would turn up at John’s compound in Sanur, knowing he would try to help.

John was kind to all living things. In Bali, some believe criminals come back in their next life as dogs. That’s their karma pala. So dogs are often treated poorly. Except for a mutt called Rocky, who lived in John’s compound. Locals would ask why Rocky was so well treated, since he’d probably been a crook in his previous life. He was wrongly accused, John would reply.

John Fawcett was revered in Bali. He had the ears and support of political leaders in Indonesia and Australia, but he had the hearts and gratitude of hundreds of thousands across the archipelago.

I returned to Bali quite a few times in the late 1990s to write John’s biography, so I frequently saw demonstrations of that gratitude and love. Wherever we went, John stood out. Being more than 190 cm tall ensured that. But it wasn’t just his height but the depth of his compassion, and the extent to which he had transformed lives, that made him a giant. Former patients embraced him. Prospective patients stood expectantly before him. Everyone loved him.  

John died last month in Perth. He was 85. When I heard the news, I thought about who and what the world had lost. The Balinese have lost their beloved “Mr John”. Australians have lost a gentle unofficial diplomat, who brought our neighbour closer in profound ways. I have lost a mentor. John had opened my eyes to so many things, including elements of myself.

A service for John is being held in Bali next week. The Island of the Gods will be weeping. Now John’s eyes are closed, but about 50,000 windows to his soul remain open. For his vision lives on, through the lives of all those former patients.  

And he remains a towering example of how to make the most of life. I remember what he said to me once, as we sat under a full moon in Sanur: “Things happen in life that make you feel ‘that’s got to be the end’. But it’s not. No one can take away the happy memories of what has been, but it doesn’t mean you don’t open the door and step through to what is next.”