Hope and health amid diabetes epidemic in the Pacific

In her dimly lit home on the outskirts of Nadi, Fiji, Latileta Ranadi greeted me from a wheelchair. Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes three years ago, her left leg has been amputated below the knee and until recently, she was partially blind.

Her husband Iliseo Vasu, who has emphysema, was sitting at her side on a woven flax mat. He no longer works and the pair largely rely on their four children to put food on the table.

They're not a wealthy family and talk about the "blessing" of just having a wheelchair, given to them recently by a member of their local church.   

Despite having so little and her health being so poor, Latileta is stoic and surprisingly upbeat. This is because just a few days ago she visited a team of eye care specialists from the Pacific Eye Institute. 

She's "very, very happy", she tells me. After almost a year of not being able to clearly see the faces of those she loved most, her eyesight had been restored.

Diabetes had irreversible and tragically altered Latileta's way of life, but having her vision back gave her hope a reason to be optimistic about the future. 

Just up the road, steamed green bananas were on the menu at Julie Tevita's house. The 62-year-old had also been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. The pale fruit simmering on the stovetop was not a particularly appetising sight, but it was all part of her plan to live longer.  

Julie says she used to live a sedentary lifestyle and eat "anything and everything" she liked, including "Kiwi corned beef", the high-fat, salty tinned meat which has become a staple in many homes around the Pacific.

When Julie started to lose her eyesight, she knew her situation had become particularly serious. She could no longer read books and could only see the blurred outline of people who visited her home.

Laser treatment to remove cataracts helped her see once again. She credits the eye care team with helping her to change her habits.  

As is typical of many diabetes patients, she has to have regular appointments with doctors.

"It's the clinics," she says. "I don't want to go in and for them to tell me you haven't looked after your sugar for the last three months."

Her children and grandchildren are the other key motivating force. "I want to be around for as long as I can," Julie says.

"I know I'll die one day, but not in the middle. I want to go at the end." 

Michael Morrah travelled to Fiji with help from the Fred Hollows Foundation. This month marks 25 years since the charity was established. Since then, they've restored the sight of hundreds of thousands of people across the Pacific, and trained 257 eye doctors and nurses. If you'd like to support the work they're doing, you can visit hollows.org.nz.