Fred Hollows was dying, and he knew it.
Desperately ill in hospital, there seemed little hope that he could complete his last eye surgery mission in Vietnam.
Yet not even cancer could stop gruff, stubborn, endlessly compassionate Fred once he made up his mind.
Determined to get to Hanoi as promised, he took drastic action.
“He just tore the tracheotomy tube out of his throat and discharged himself from hospital,” recalls his widow Gabi, 69, still in awe of his courage and commitment.
“Fred was very sick then, so everything was pretty raw, but none of us thought he would pass away a few months later.”
The enduring image of that final trip features Fred examining the eyes of eight-year-old boy Tran Van Giap, whose sight was saved by a simple operation the following day.
Thirty years later, as the Fred Hollows Foundation celebrates its anniversary, the “bittersweet but beautiful” photograph remains central to its crusade – to end avoidable blindness.
Since the charity was established on September 3, 1992, it has restored the sight of more than 3 million people globally and delivered more than 200 million doses of antibiotics for trachoma.
“It’s a wonderful, magnificent, amazing kind of story,” smiles Gabi, a National Living Treasure, who has worked tirelessly for the foundation since Fred’s too-early death, aged only 63, in 1993.
“There are so many things I’m proud of, but mostly I’m just honoured by the people who have believed in us and donated to us. We couldn’t have done any of it without the Australian community.”
Left alone with five small children to raise, grief-stricken Gabi rapidly became the foundation’s matriarch, fundraiser-in-chief and guiding spirit.
Fred’s legacy survives thanks to her, in no small part.
“She is the real unsung hero,” says her son Cam, 40, now a GP in the flood-ravaged NSW Northern Rivers region.
Put that to his mum, and she shrugs off her achievements.
“Well, you know, I’m just me,” she laughs.
“I’m not an angel, not a saint. They call me ‘Gabby Gabi’ and I do have the gift of the gab, although I talk too much and speak in figure eights. The kids say they never know what’s going to come out of my mouth!”
Gabi O’Sullivan first became interested in medicine when she had surgery to correct a squint at the age of three. Deciding to become an orthoptist she met Fred during her training in Sydney.
There was an instant connection.
“The first words I ever had from him, he was telling us all off in a lecture,” she recalls. “But I was never shy or scared of doctors because I’d been going to eye clinics since I was a child. Fred was such a livewire, so outspoken, so passionate, we just connected. There was this incredible click and away we went.”
Indeed they did.
Aged 22, Gabi joined her husband-to-be on the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program, treating more than 100,000 people at some 465 remote Indigenous communities over three years.
It was a life-changing experience, not least because the couple fell in love. Marrying in 1980, their wedding cake was a map of their travels on the trachoma program.
But there were many more journeys – to Nepal, Eritrea, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Thailand and Myanmar – performing countless operations, training local surgeons and building low-cost lens factories.
By the time he died, Fred had become a living legend. Given a state funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, he was buried in the red dirt mulga country he loved, at Bourke.
In 1996 Gabi tied the knot with Sydney lawyer John Balazs, who had lost his first wife to cancer.
“I never thought I’d end up with another beautiful man,” she says fondly, relaxing at the historic Randwick home where her children grew up.
“We had no idea we would get together. It’s a crazy story, his late wife had the same oncologist as Fred. But John is great, our kids absolutely adore him. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done without his support.”
Looking back, Gabi reflects, “I’ve had a lot of bittersweet moments. Sometimes I wonder how many tears I have left. The saddest thing is that Fred never lived long enough to see his children grow up, or meet his grandchildren.
“If I could speak to him today, I’d hold up one of the intra-ocular lenses we now make in our own laboratories, and he’d be astonished. It was always a dream but we never thought we could achieve that.
“So if Fred could rise up from the nine tonnes of granite on his grave, I’d say he’d be doing cartwheels all the way down the highway straight to Dubbo. And it’s all thanks to the thousands of people who have supported us.”
More info can be found at The Fred Hollows Foundation.