Twenty-seven years ago this month, Fred Hollows died and I attended his funeral at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney with the great and the good of Australia, every living Australian prime minister and the indigenous Australians who he championed in all of his work.

Although New Zealand-born, he was buried in Bourke in his beloved Outback.

My relationship with him and the Fred Hollows Foundation came about by accident in late 1992.


At the time I had no idea who Fred was and the days of Google, email and the ubiquitous mobile phones had not yet arrived. For me spelling the word ophthalmologist was a stretch when eye doctor would do.

Being in the PR business I was working with Douglas Myers at Lion Nathan. He admired and respected Fred and his work in Australia with the indigenous Australians so he wanted to help. I was shoulder tapped.

My brief was to manage the publicity/tour while Fred was in NZ and make him famous very quickly. The deadline was dictated by the speed of Fred's cancer.

There was also the need for everything to be donated or sponsored, as the foundation had no money. Everyone worked pro bono.

I made a quick visit to Australia to get Fred's tick. He was an old-fashioned guy so getting his okay, as a woman, was a big deal.

His rambling house in Randwick was interesting chaos full of children, doctors, media and indigenous Australians. I had never met an indigenous Australian in my life (neither had most urban Australians).

Back in New Zealand, we needed a venue for the launch. As I was on the advisory board of the original Watershed Theatre in the old vegetable markets on Auckland's waterfront, I knew it would the perfect venue – not too posh with lots of character.

Kaltabau Kiri, age 71, gets an eye exam at Vanuatu's only dedicated eye centre, supported by the Fred Hollows Foundation NZ. Photo / Dean Purcell
Kaltabau Kiri, age 71, gets an eye exam at Vanuatu's only dedicated eye centre, supported by the Fred Hollows Foundation NZ. Photo / Dean Purcell

It was decided that Fred would bring his family with him that included small twins. It truly was a travelling roadshow with the addition of friends, relations and admirers.


The then Sheraton Hotel gave them the Presidential Suite and rooms. Lion picked up any costs for the visit that were not donated, including endless bottles of Fred's favourite whisky.

Huge day-to-day publicity was being generated - fuelled by Fred's impending death, which made him a man with a mission. We then decided we could squeeze in the making of a documentary. He gave a raw and magnificent final interview to Paul Holmes.

I have to say, Fred was a dream subject - frank, funny, genuine and user-friendly in a gruff sort of way.

At the launch, full of Auckland's heavy hitters, Fred ensured there was not a dry eye in the house. He won their hearts and minds and the foundation became a reality in New Zealand.

The simplicity of the message is compelling – giving back sight gives people back the freedom to run their own lives.

During his visit to NZ, Fred met and anointed Ray Avery to play a major part in the setting up of the internationally-recognised lens factory in Nepal. Ray became a key "go to" for the foundation in New Zealand as the spokesperson. He was ideal as he was working at the coalface and had the life-changing stories.

After Fred's death, it was vital to keep the foundation's profile up. Ian Sinclair from TVNZ went to Eritrea and did a doco. Journalist Joanna Wane visited Nepal with me. We met Dr Ruit, the remarkable, talented and humble Nepalese ophthalmologist. Fred had been his mentor. Ruit could do 40 cataract operations a day.

In Nepal we travelled with Ruit to an isolated valley and as the sun rose over the hills hundreds of poor Nepalese came - many carrying their blind on their backs.

The first operations were a revelation and the next day even more so when these simple people had their bandages taken off and could immediately see. For them it was truly a miracle.

Angela Griffen. Photo / supplied
Angela Griffen. Photo / supplied

I had a long relationship with Nepal and the Tilganga Eye Centre and watched it grow from an empty plot into a world famous facility.

There were many extraordinary times including meeting the King and Queen of Nepal who supported the building of Tilganga Hospital and were later murdered by their son, a tragedy leading to the downfall of the Nepalese Monarchy.

The best outcome of my time working with the foundation was being involved in the start of something that has contributed to the quality of life for millions.

If I get cataracts, I will go to Nepal and Dr Ruit can operate on me – it would be such a privilege.

• Angela Griffen is a strategic communications advisor with an extensive background in public relations and journalism.